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Expo News » Soft Drinks Sweeteners – New Opportunities, New Challenges
In the UK government’s recent annual budget, Chancellor George Osbourne announced that soft drinks manufacturers would be subject to a sugar tax on sugary soft drinks to be implemented in 2018. The move, which has angered and frustrated soft drinks manufacturers, has led to an even greater urgency to reformulate beverages, which are seen to be a key factor in the global obesity epidemic. Rather than pay a levy on the sale of their drinks, manufacturers want to find ways to reduce the sugar content, and in turn, the calorie content, but without compromising the taste of the final product.

Traditional “diet” drinks have been popular across the globe since the 1980s but they have fallen out of favor in recent years due to the artificial sweeteners that they contain. Once the darlings of the beverage industry, with high growth rates and even higher consumption rates, consumers no longer want to consume artificial ingredients. Not only have such ingredients fallen out of favor for their “artificial” label, but there has also been much speculation and controversy surrounding the possible detrimental health effects of artificial sweeteners, namely sucralose and aspartame.

More recently, there has been some controversy with Splenda, the sucralose-based sweetener came under scrutiny as there were some negative allegations suggesting that it was unsafe and could cause cancer. In light of the claims, Heartland Consumer Products Group, LLC, the makers of Splenda, Chairman and CEO, Ted Gelov issued an open letter to consumers addressing these allegations and to maintain that the extensive research they have done have never had any links to cancer. 

Gelov said in the statement: "Sucralose, the no-calorie sweetener in all Splenda sweetener products, is a safe and healthy alternative to sugar, and to suggest otherwise is a disservice to all of us. Splenda sweeteners are safely used by millions of people every day and are a valuable tool for managing weight and diabetes.”

The full letter aims to set the record straight. "The truth is that sucralose has been extensively researched, with more than 110 studies conducted over a 20-year period, and there is no known mechanism by which sucralose could cause cancer. Sucralose has been found safe for use by health and safety regulatory agencies around the world, including the U.S. National Cancer Institute," Gelov added. 

Scientists and food manufacturers have gone to great lengths to reassure consumers that such ingredients are safe, but for some consumers that is not enough. Sales of Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, the world’s most popular diet drinks have been falling for several months. In the third quarter of 2015, sales of Diet Coke fell by 8%, while sales of the company’s flagship Coca-Cola grew by 1%. PepsiCo has announced the reformulation of its Diet Pepsi brand that does not contain aspartame.

It isn't primarily the “diet” versions of soft drinks that manufacturers are looking to reformulate. Their biggest demand currently is the reformulation of their “full sugar” varieties so that the overall all sugar and calorie content is reduced, but, crucially, the taste remains the same. As well as this, today’s consumer wants to avoid artificial flavors and sweeteners in all categories, not only soft drinks. It’s no easy task but with major food manufacturers such as Mars, General Mills, Kellogg’s and Campbell’s pledging to remove all artificial flavors and colors from their formulations in the long-term, the pressure is on to find alternatives.

This is going to be easier in the US and Asia, than in Europe, say many industry experts. And the reason is that many of the natural high potency sweeteners that are used as an alternative to sugar currently are not approved for use in European food products. The most popular of these are allulose, monk fruit and erythritol, the latter having gained approval for use in non-alcoholic beverages in March 2015, but only in relatively small amounts that would not make a significant difference in reformulation. 

Alternative sweeteners 
Perhaps the best known and most used natural sweetener is erythritol, which is a bulk sweetener that is not absorbed by the digestive tract and so it does not contribute to calorie intake. Almost as sweet as sugar, this natural sugar alcohol occurs naturally in many foodstuffs such as pears, watermelon, grapes and soy sauce. It does, however, have rather a bitter aftertaste, and so manufacturers often use it in combination with other sweeteners. Erythritol has been approved for use in foods in the EU since 2006.

Stevia is also gaining in popularity. It is extracted from the leaf of the Stevia rebaudiana and has an intense, sweet flavor, but also carries a bitter aftertaste. Many manufacturers are now using erythritol and stevia in combination in order to reduce sugar and create a taste that consumers will accept. Stevia is approved for use in foodstuffs in both Europe and the US and is gaining in popularity as a “plug-in” sugar replacement.

US-based Steviva Ingredients has manufactured natural sweetener products for the food & beverage industry since 1999. President Thom King told FoodIngredientsFirst that the trend for clean eating is definitely driving the trend for natural sweeteners.

“The demand for clean label products has driven the business from the beginning,” says King. “As well as providing a clean alternative to sugar, our products can also reduce the need for certain synthetic preservatives, necessary when there is a threat of pathogens. The shelf-stable nature of many of our products increases shelf life, without the need for additional chemicals,” he said.

Steviva also produces a stevia product that has a very fine mesh, which is Steviva’s unique selling point. This enable the product to be used in a variety of foods that were previously not possible to incorporate stevia into. The produce dissolves immediately in both hot and cold manufacturing processes.

Steviva has also launched a stevia product that is mixed with allulose, which is considered by many to be the hot new sweetener for those looking for a low-calorie, natural sweetener. As a rare sugar, but with very low calorific value and a natural plant source, chemists have been trying for decades to find ways of processing allulose on a large-scale, large enough to allow big food processors to use it to replace sugar. Professor Ken Izumori at Kagawa University in Japan first discovered the enzyme to synthesise allulose from fructose, which is abundant; the technology and the method to develop the sweetener.

Allulose is currently not permitted for use in Europe, but Matsutani, which has been instrumental in the development of allulose does see that changing in the near future. “EFSA is more conservative when it comes to permitting new products. However, allulose is currently consumed naturally already, so I believe that it is safe as a food ingredient. EFSA processes are longer because of careful review means that this product is significant,” says deputy research and development manager Yuma Tani.

The applications for which allulose can be used are vast. It tastes just like sugar, according to Matsutani, and can be used in a 1:1 ratio, while the caloric value is significantly lower. Tani says that this sweetener will be best suited to the beverage market, as well as bakery, confectionery and the table-top sugar replacement market.

As well as simply mimicking sugar, Tani claims that Astraea Allulose could make significant health claims depending on the country, giving it further health benefits over other low-calorie sweeteners. Matsutani has applied for a Food For Specified Health Use (FOSHU) claim for Astraea Allulose due to its effect on post-prandial blood glucose, which has been shown to reduce the likelihood of type-2 diabetes, an increasingly common condition in our obesogenic society. With a health claim attached to it, the uses for Astraea Allulose could become even more pertinent and wide-spread. And although Tani believes that such a claim would be difficult to make in the US, in other parts of the world, particularly in Asia, such a claim could be made. He anticipates that it will take another two years for the FOSHU claim to come to market.

Allulose will be one of the ingredients to watch as manufacturers look for natural sweetening solutions in their product development.
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