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Something sweet for sugar reformulation? Challenges in the reduced-sugar space, while stevia reigns supreme

Over the years, consumers have increasingly demanded reduced-sugar foods and beverages which taste good. As a result, sugar reformulation has been top-of-mind for many key players in the sugar and natural sweetener space. Often seen in the food industry as the “bad guy” – sugar has taken some stick in recent years, but it does offer more than taste, and when removed, can be challenging for the end-product. With health on the tip of the tongue of many consumers, there has been an abundance of new natural ingredients and sweeteners hoping to compete in the sweetening stakes.

A 2018 Innova Market Insights Consumer Lifestyle and Attitudes Survey revealed that nearly seven out of ten consumers across the countries surveyed (US, UK, France, Germany, China and Brazil) had reduced their sugar intake. Many consumers are looking for natural ingredients and the substitution of artificial sweeteners. They are highly attentive towards the type of sugar substitution used in reformulated products and are very likely to accept a combination of less sugar and natural sweeteners over a sugar-free, but artificially-sweetened formula.

Cargill has been working with customers on reduced-sugar formulations across the full spectrum of food and beverage applications, according to Andy Ohmes, Global Director for High-Intensity Sweeteners at the company.

“Initially, much of our work was in the beverage space, but today, improvements in sweetener options have opened the door to sugar reduction in all kinds of products, including bakery, convenience, snacks, sports nutrition and confectionery. Most recently, we’ve seen heightened interest in reducing sugar in dairy products like ice cream, along with flavored milk and yogurts,” he tells.

As a general rule, Ohmes says he is seeing two approaches designed to influence consumers’ food choices: changes to food labeling requirements and added taxes to certain foods or beverages based on sugar content. “Both initiatives attempt to address improving consumer health,” he notes. “We all have a stake in improving consumer health and if we work collectively to understand better the root causes that are driven by science, not unsubstantiated opinions, we can create transparent solutions that lead to sustained improvements in health.

The fundamental forces driving consumer demand for reduced sugar options show no sign of abating, according to Ohmes. “At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the importance of taste. Consumers want reduced-sugar foods and beverages made with simple ingredients – but not at the expense of great taste. Taste is – and will remain – the single biggest driver of purchase intent. Fortunately, formulators have more tools available today than ever before, as brands strive to balance consumer demand for products that enable sweetness and still deliver on taste,” he explains.

For Abigail Storm, VP for Marketing and Sweeteners at Tate & Lyle, today’s food industry has a greater sense of urgency around sugar and calorie reduction, as obesity levels continue to rise at a worrying pace.

“We have already seen a progression in the beverage category with growth in functional and flavored waters and ready-to-drink (RTD) tea. Elsewhere, there’s been innovation in the ice cream category, as well as a growth in bakery and confectionery – with low and no-calorie sweeteners, including stevia which continues to grow in popularity, helping brands to meet the sugar reduction challenges,” she tells.

“The larger established food and beverage companies are also being challenged by the challengers – the start-ups with healthier product propositions. We know that it’s not just about the sugar you take out, but what you replace it with – whether that be fibers, sweeteners or texturants to build back the full taste experience of the full sugar equivalent,” she explains.

Reformulation challenges
Reformulation of foods and beverages to reduce sugar without sacrificing flavor, physical and textural attributes, cost, functionality, sustainability and addressing the clean trend is challenging, Ohmes continues. “The reality is that sugar plays many roles. In addition to providing sweetness, it also acts as a preservative – helping to extend the shelf life of foods and as a fermentation substrate. It is also important in the texture, structure, color, mouthfeel, viscosity and flavoring of foods.”

“This is why reformulation of foods to reduce sugar is such a challenge – it doesn’t simply involve the removal of a single nutrient and, in fact, more often than not the nutrient removed will have to be replaced with other ingredients.”

For Storm, the most significant challenges are being able to replace the full functionality of sugar, not just the sweetness. “With the portfolio of ingredients that we have to offer, we’re able to deliver on that ‘sweet spot,’ so to speak. Take a chocolate chip cookie for example – Tate & Lyle fibers can build back the bulk while providing fiber enrichment, our texturants can maintain the same spread and texture of the cookie, and our sweetener portfolio of ingredients, where permitted, can provide the sweetness, or the browning, texture and mouthfeel with the use of allulose, for example.”

Thomas Schmidt, Marketing Director at Beneo, agrees with this notion: “As with any product reformulation that involves cutting out sugar or fat, the main challenge is to maintain the same sweetness, mouthfeel and texture that is given by the original ingredient, while reducing its use.”

For Global Head of Marketing at PureCircle, Carolyn Clark, the situation is much better and easier for food and beverage companies today than it was in the past. “Not long ago, stevia was viewed as a plant-based, zero-calorie, single-ingredient sweetener which worked well in some beverage and food applications. But much has changed,” she claims.

“We have since addressed the challenge associated with first generation stevia ingredients. Today we offer a range of new generation stevia leaf sweetener ingredients, including Reb M, with sugar-like taste and zero calories. Our Reb M stevia leaf sweetener works well across all major food and beverage categories,” she notes.

Until recently, a challenge has been that Reb M was present only in relatively small amounts in conventional stevia plants. “Recent PureCircle advances enable us to significantly boost production of new generation stevia sweeteners like Reb M,” Clark continues. “This means we can supply stevia sweeteners in amounts that customers need as they expand the use of stevia ingredients. Depending on amounts purchased and terms of purchase, companies buying Reb M from PureCircle will find the cost of using it to sweeten a beverage or food, equivalent to their cost of using sugar to achieve the same level of sweetening.”

“Everyone would love to have a ‘magic bullet,’ a zero-calorie, natural sweetener that tastes exactly like a full-sugar version and mimics sugar’s functionality, says Ohmes from Cargill. “The reality is product developers need to use multiple tools to create successful reduced-sugar food and beverage products.”

“We believe stevia and erythritol, often used in combination, are two of the best tools currently available for sugar reduction, across food and beverage applications,” he adds. In the case of stevia, product launches containing the high-intensity sweetener reached more than 4,300 new products globally in 2017, according to Innova Market Insights data.

Consumers’ positive perceptions of the plant-based sweetener clearly contributed to that growth. According to Cargill’s proprietary online research of 13,000 consumers, when compared to 12 of the leading low/no-calorie sweeteners, consumers ranked stevia leaf extract as the most healthful, as well as having the most positive perception on the label, according to Cargill’s IngredienTracker.

“Erythritol is also enjoying an uptick in use, with launches using the ingredient doubling since 2012. Erythritol, which looks and tastes like sugar, is often paired with high-intensity sweeteners because it has a sugar-like aftertaste, helps mask off-notes and replaces sugar’s bulk,” he notes.

Tate & Lyle is continuing to innovate in the stevia space with its partner Sweet Green Fields. “We want to provide the best tasting, lower-cost solutions that make it as easy as possible for our customers to reformulate with stevia,” says Storm. “We are also pushing forward with innovation on our rare sugar pillar, providing allulose in different formats and at different levels of cost in use to again broaden the use of that breakthrough ingredient given the range of benefits it can deliver in food and beverage applications.”

“There are a few trends I see gaining traction with thought leaders in this space that will likely impact on our customers and their consumers. Those being the interest in reducing sweetness levels in final products, retraining ourselves to demand less sweetness. In addition, I see consumer demand for added benefits, such as added fiber – a genuine way to build back positive nutrition benefits when taking sugar out of a formulation,” she explains.

“Speaking of the calories of sugar, some people could be radical but we do not think removing sugar from a formulation is rational or pragmatic. What sugar can provide to food and beverages is more than sweetness. And steviol glycosides perform well with sugar. With the presence of sugar, steviol glycosides could achieve a more satisfying overall taste and enhance the sweetness,” Dean Francis, CEO of Sweet Green Fields tells.

All steviol glycosides from the stevia plant have been approved, he says. “It echoes to our initial standing that the underdeveloped steviol glycosides have their unique value that may improve the taste profile, solubility and cost-in-use of the mainstream steviol glycosides. We have new stevia products being developed in this direction that allows us to bring stevia more acceptable and sustainable to consumers.”

“In the area of sweetener of zero calories and natural sources, we don’t see scalable and commercially viable sweeteners coming in the way of stevia,” adds Francis.

What’s next?

PureCircle is expanding its offerings of stevia leaf ingredients to include, not just sweeteners and flavors, but also protein, fiber and antioxidant ingredients – all from the stevia plant. According to the company, this development will enable PureCircle to utilize much more of each stevia leaf. As such, the company will be able to make each leaf “work harder.”

Additionally, continued demand for bulk replacement of sugar will remain a priority. For Storm at Tate & Lyle, “no single ingredient that can replace sugar and all its functionality and the company will continue to innovate around combinatorial pillars for sugar and calorie reduction – through sensory expertise and ingredient development to provide our customers with the best combinations of our ingredients to deliver solutions for sugar and calorie reduction across categories,” she says.

Several countries, including the UK, have introduced a sugar tax and other countries may also follow suit, in this respect. Sugar reduction and reformulation is expected to remain pivotal in 2019 and beyond while 2020 will be the year when targets will be scrutinized even further.

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