"Nature-identical" sweeteners are the focus of some food companies looking to innovate in the potentially profitable segment, according to Ingredients Network.
One technique involves fermenting genetically engineered yeast to develop the most desirable sweetness compounds from the stevia plant. Companies say the process uses less energy, water and land.
However, there has been some concern about whether consumers will accept these new sweeteners even if they can't tell whether they came from a laboratory or from nature, Ingredients Network said.
Natural sweeteners are popular with consumers, especially as people look for healthier and lower-calorie substitutes for sugar. Manufacturers facing upcoming government requirements to list added sugars on their Nutrition Facts labels also are looking for ways to reduce sugar content in their products.
There are major incentives to make that happen. A survey from Label Insight found that 22% of U.S. consumers are hoping to restrict their sugar intake, and many plan to do that by buying no-sugar-added items this year. As a result, foods and beverages with zero-calorie sweeteners and no artificial sweeteners saw sales climb 16% in 2017, according to Nielsen figures. In an effort to retain consumers who want to cut back on their sugar intake, Coca-Cola replaced Coke Zero with Coca-Cola Zero Sugar last summer, a move that so far has proven to be a hit for the world's largest non-alcoholic beverage company.
Manufacturers that have been investing in developing nature-identical sweeteners — such as ADM, Cargill, Evolva, DSM, PureCircle and Savanna Ingredients — are hoping to score with consumers and reduce their environmental footprint at the same time.
The question is, how will consumers react if these new sugar substitutes come from a lab and not from a field? The deciding factor is likely to be taste, which is a challenge for natural sweetener producers. Stevia has been undergoing a significant amount of research and development as ingredients manufacturers try to isolate off-putting flavors, such as the bitterness associated with Rebaudioside A, or Reb A, a steviol glycoside said to be 200 times sweeter than sugar.
Reb M, another steviol glycoside that lacks the bitterness of Reb A, only comprises 1% of the stevia leaf, but it can be made into larger quantities through the fermentation process. This, plus proprietary flavor modulation technologies, such as those used by Illinois-based Imbibe, can produce a better-tasting "natural" sweetener or enhance the sweetness already there.
Consumers might like the idea of using less water, land and energy to produce these sweeteners, but they may not care for the idea of using genetically engineered yeast. In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration accepted Cargill's EverSweet under its generally recognized as safe designation and determined that products in which it's included don't need to carry GMO labeling. However, the perception that natural is better is a tough sentiment to overcome.
The key to getting consumers to try these sweeteners may be robust testing, educational outreach about the process and their inclusion in a wide array of familiar products in the beverage, confectionery and bakery segments. If the calorie level is low, the price is right and the taste is very similar to sugar — without bitterness or other undesirable aftertastes — objections from consumers may eventually be overcome.