Sugar cravings are unavoidable — but excess sugar consumption needn't be. By strategically choosing alternative sweeteners, formulators can dial down added sugars in products while maintaining the taste that consumers crave.
It's only natural: Human beings are born craving sweetness. After all, when we're infants, that craving helps keep us nourished.
Yet for many, a taste for sugar lasts into adulthood, where it raises the risk for chronic conditions ranging from type 2 diabetes to heart disease.
So it's worth celebrating that consumers are finally cluing into the connection between excess sugar and poor health outcomes. But health isn't the only factor they consider; as consumers' number-one purchase driver, taste, trumps all.
This presents a product-development conundrum: how to lower sugar levels while maintaining the sensory appeal, price point and labeling that draw consumers in.
The answer is a strategic deployment of sweetener technologies that lower sugar levels while also hitting consumers' sweet spot.
Getting the message
Consumers' predilection for too much sugar is nothing new. Yet what is new is that consumers seem to genuinely be getting the message that enough is enough.
As far as Hirotoki Takemasa, Associate Manager of Marketing and Data Analysis at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition, is concerned, it's about time. "Decades of public-health and nutrition marketing about the relationship between excess sugar and disease are now sinking in," he observes. "That's shifting consumers toward a proactive mindset of taking long-term action, rather than reacting once an issue becomes a clinical diagnosis."
74% of U.S. respondents told the International Food Information Council (IFIC) in its 2020 Food and Health Survey that they're trying to limit sugar intake, while 53% of respondents to the Euromonitor 2020 Health and Nutrition Survey cited sugar reduction as their main weight-control method, Takemasa notes.
And with sugar on their minds, their eyes are focused on nutrition labels — "especially the 'added sugars' line now on packages," he continues. Per IFIC's survey, 36% of respondents actively look for "low sugar" or "no added sugar" labeling on their packaged food choices
The proliferation of such labeling underscores the importance that policymakers ascribe to the sugar reduction effort.
"Front-of-panel labels informing consumers of sugar content are required in the EU and many other countries," Takemasa says, "and most recently, actual warning-label requirements for high sugar content took effect in Mexico. This comes atop the sugar taxes that countries are enacting to help reduce consumption."
Sugary drinks alone account for 46% of Americans' added-sugar intake and are the primary sugar source for all age groups, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
So whether responding to mandates, consumers or both, Takemasa concludes, "Food and beverage companies must adjust to this new environment or risk losing market share to competitors who can not only innovate low-sugar solutions, but do so while satisfying consumers' hunger for sweetness."
So how can product developers balance their obligation to lower sugar levels against these continued expectations for taste?
"It's not just taste, either," adds Ihab Bishay, Senior Director of Sweeteners at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition. "Depending on the consumer, they might expect an affordable price, a clean label or a number of other qualities. And any reformulation has to preserve the product's shelf life, stability, and performance."
Freedom of choice
Of course, product developers now have more sweetener choices than ever. Therefore, product developers need a strategy for narrowing those choices.
"Beyond that, select a sweetener with a clean, sweet taste," Bishay advises. "That way, you won't find yourself wasting time masking off-notes or formulating around taste deficiencies later."
Not as notorious
So how would this play out in a carbonated soft drink, or CSD? "These are some of the most popular drinks out there," Bishay says, "but they're very high in sugar." To dial down that sugar, formulators need a sweetener that's stable in the product environment, affordable and as close to sugar's taste as possible — which means aspartame.
"Aspartame is an amino-acid-based sweetener that the Ajinomoto Group was instrumental in launching," Bishay explains. "It's a methyl ester of an aspartic acid/phenylalanine dipeptide that the body metabolizes naturally. And since the 1980s, it's been used in 134 countries and more than 6,000 products — everything from diet sodas to sugar-free gum to tabletop sweeteners. That makes it the world's most successful alternative sweetener."
Much of aspartame's success is owed to its clean, sweet, sugar-like taste. "Of all the alternative sweeteners on the market," Bishay says, "its taste comes closest to sugar's" — both in the quality of sweetness and in its temporal profile, or how it evolves over time.
Moreover, while inherent off-tastes limit other sweeteners' ability to replace sugar, aspartame has little to no off-taste of its own, making it unique in its ability to replace all of a CSD's sugar for a zero-calorie beverage with a sugar-like taste that's crisp, clean and refreshing, Bishay says.
Sweetener and then some
Refrigerated dairy, like chocolate milk, is a perennial favorite in the space, but it also receives criticism for its high sugar levels. "Given how popular it is with children," Bishay says, "there's reason for criticism, as chocolate milk might predispose them to weight gain and associated conditions as they age."
Yet sugar reduction in flavored milks is tricky, given that milk's standard of identity, as spelled out in Code of Federal Regulations Title 131.110, prohibits the use of nonnutritive sweeteners in products labeled milk. Fortunately, Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition has another ingredient that can support this category.
That ingredient is advantame, a new molecule that the Ajinomoto Group invented in 1998 by reacting aspartame with vanillin. Advantame isn't only a sweetener; it's also an approved flavor with modifying properties, or FMP. "That's key," Bishay explains, "because although milk's standard of identity doesn't allow high-potency sweeteners, it does okay FMPs — which gives advantame the go-ahead."
Advantame has a well-known capacity to enhance chocolate flavor, Bishay continues, "which makes chocolate milk taste richer while extending the chocolate flavor through the duration of the drinking experience."
This benefits consumers and brands alike because when formulators get more chocolatey mileage from existing cocoa content, they can either cut that content or switch to a lower-quality cocoa — saving costs without compromising the chocolate impact.
As a FMP, advantame can be used in chocolate milk with reduced sugar levels in the range of 20% to 30%, Bishay claims, helping rebuild the taste and flavor often missing when sugar is reduced and taking a bite out of added sugars and calorie totals. "This can translate into sugar cost savings, too," Bishay adds.
Used at less than 1 ppm as a FMP in chocolate milk, advantame appears on labels as "artificial flavor." "So if a chocolate milk already contains artificial flavor," Bishay says, "the ingredient statement won't change. All that changes are the added-sugar and calorie totals — and in a good way."
The natural choice
Aspartame and advantame are game changers in applications that don't require all-natural ingredients. But in applications that do, product developers need a sugar alternative with more natural credentials.
Take plant-based milks: Category fans value natural labels, yet the alt-milk category tends toward higher sugar contents — as many as 10 to 15 grams of sugar per serving, says Hirotoki Takemasa, Associate Manager of Data Analysis and Marketing at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition. Perhaps that's because plant bases ranging from soy and hemp to chia present sensory challenges of their own, tempting developers to compensate with extra sugar.
Either way, the sector "has a large need in the realm of sugar replacement," Bishay says — and natural sugar replacement, at that.
Advances in natural stevia sweeteners extracted from the stevia plant have been a breakthrough, yet many stevia options still fall short.
"Some of these natural sweeteners tend to enhance the off-notes of plant-based milks, or even leave an undesirable sweet linger at the end of the taste experience," Bishay points out. "But the Ajinomoto Group recently partnered with Japan's Morita Kagaku Kogyo Company — innovators in stevia since 1971 — to launch the AJISWEET™ line of natural stevia sweeteners, and we believe they overcome some of these drawbacks."
Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition's AJISWEET™ extracts rebaudioside A — the principle, and one of the best-tasting, steviol glycoside in stevia — directly from the stevia leaf using a proprietary extraction technology that produces a finished sweetener with a clean taste profile and minimal off-tastes, Bishay claims.
"AJISWEET™ RA has a more sugar-like taste, so the sweetness is more 'upfront' on the palate and leaves a much cleaner finish," Bishay says. "Studies show that it has less bitterness, sweetness linger and licorice off-taste than the leading rebaudioside A products on the market. It can even enhance flavor systems."
And in plant-based milks, because of its cleaner taste, AJISWEET™ "allows formulators to substitute most or all of the added sugars," Bishay continues. "Since more than half the calories in plant milks come from the sugar content alone, using AJISWEET™ to replace added sugars can reduce the calorie counts by more than half."
Even better, AJISWEET™ is natural, appearing on packs simply as "stevia leaf extract."
And that should please everyone. "Consumers who want clean-label, clean-tasting sugar reduction aren't willing to compromise," Bishay says. "And neither are we! Our sweetener toolkit puts clean sweetness first, with products that add mouthfeel, reduce linger and bitterness, enhance flavor and meet consumers' expectations for sugar-like taste." With sweeteners like these, who misses sugar?