Sweetening the Nutraceuticals Market

Calories may count today in consumers’ minds, but that was not always the case. Calories were not the focus in the much-maligned low-fat craze and they were conspicuously absent in the marketing of low-carb products as well. Now, in light of the new dietary guidelines introduced just last year, calories seem to count more than ever.

Tasteful Trends…

The sweetener market in the context of health and wellness products is alive and well. Whether sweeteners are classfied as natural, synthetic, or both, the product formulation possibilities appear endless with the relatively new trend of blending. Also drawing attention to the sweetener category are the health issues consumers grapple with on a daily basis. They are relying on new sweetener solutions to help them count their way to a healthier reduced-calorie lifestyle.

Not surprisingly, the sweetener market is very consumer-driven. Heeding the warnings of government institutions and health authorities about the rising rates of preventable diseases like obesity and type II diabetes, consumers are on a quest to do what they can, albeit slowly, to change their unhealthy habits by reducing calorie intake, and in turn, sugar consumption. The most knowledgeable consumers in this respect are always found first in the natural products channel.

A major trend in the context of the sweetener market is to go “natural” by using ingredients derived from fruits or other natural substances, according to Isabelle, Mauras, marketing coordinator, DNP, Irvine, CA. This is of particular interest to consumers of organic and natural products.

And then there are those sweeteners or sugar replacers that offer benefits beyond sweetness. “One popular positioning for products is to claim added fiber by using a sweetener considered to be prebiotic (promoting the growth of healthy bacteria, or probiotics),” said Ms. Mauras. “Sweeteners are definitely becoming more functional.”

Hilary Hursh, Food & Nutrition Scientist at Orafti, Malvern, PA, agreed. “Bulk sugar replacers like inulin and oligofructose play a major role in reducing sugar content while also providing additional health benefits associated with fiber,” she said.

Another new trend coinciding with recent developments in the sweetener arena is the rising popularity of glycemic index (GI)—how certain foods/ ingredients impact blood sugar. Currently, it seems supporters and opponents of the GI concept are equally divided. While some say GI has utility in helping consumers choose foods more wisely, others believe that the system only works with foods in isolation. Whatever the opinion, GI is being described by most experts as the next big trend in the food market, one in which sweeteners will take center stage.

A supporter of the GI trend, Debbi Bryant, technical director, Palatinit of America, Morris Plains, NJ, said, “We feel that this term is really beginning to resonate with consumers and that this growing awareness will present new opportunities for alternative sweeteners.”

Taking issue with GI, however, was Ulla Skytte, R&D manager, Arla Foods, Aarhus, Denmark, who said it is consumers’ total diet that counts, not just GI. “It is being increasingly reported that a balanced diet will pave the way to health maintenance and disease prevention,” she said. “Calories are also very much a part of this equation. You really need to look at the whole picture and GI is only a small part of this outlook.”

In addition, Ms. Skytte believes the GI trend is not growing as rapidly as everyone predicted. “GI surfaced as result of the low-carb trend, however, growth is happening at a very slow rate. The reason the GI trend is slow going is a result of consumer skepticism that came from the low-carb trend, but it also has a lot to do with the complexity surrounding the GI concept,” she said, adding, “Consumers will have a hard time embracing GI if it is tied to the low-carb trend because of what happened with low-carb products.”

Further hampering the growth of GI is the absence of regulatory consensus on what the term means and how it should be defined and conveyed to consumers. This continues to be hotly debated between companies, health experts and government authorities.

Apart from GI, Ms. Skytte was also skeptical about the growth of the health and wellness products market and the sweeteners that could play a role. “Consumers say they only want nutritional products if they taste good, but when they are actually choosing products in the supermarket, they often buy based on price,” she said. “Everyone knows that healthier products are more expensive. This is a pretty high hurdle to overcome, especially for companies like ours because tagatose is not cheap compared to other sugar substitutes. I do think that this situation will change, but not in the short-term.”

As far as product applications go, Aaron Henderson, director of marketing and communications, Wisdom Natural Brands, Mesa, AZ, pointed out that sweeteners are essential in many beverages, candies, bars and foods—functional or otherwise. However, he said, “Functional foods should rely more heavily on natural sweetening options since a chemical sweetener would dilute a marketing angle there. All other categories need the low calorie options that alternative sweeteners provide.”

…& Beneficial Blends

A more recent trend in the sweetener market centers on blending. Several companies are taking advantage of this because it offers product developers the “best of both worlds” in the case of sweeteners. This is because blends combine and optimize the beneficial attributes of each sweetener in one product.

Palatinit’s Ms. Bryant says blends have become more popular in light of the rising demand for claims of “reduced sugar,” which started in the cereal area and then migrated to other product categories. “Companies are using a variety of blends, some of which might combine a sugar alcohol and sugar to reduce the sugar level. Some will even consider using alternative sweeteners that could still be classified as a sugar, but a ‘healthier’ sugar—this is where Palatinit’s Palatinose product seems to fit well.”

Many scientists have documented the fact that blending sweeteners produces a synergistic effect, according to Arla’s Ms. Skytte. For example, she said, obtaining sweetness is not necessarily that difficult, the challenge is avoiding the side effects that may come with achieving sweetness with a particular sweetener. “Some of these side effects may include bitter taste, mineral taste, off-flavors, mouthfeel or lingering sweetness,” she explained. “By using blends you reduce some of the negative properties that may accompany certain sweeteners. You could also blend sweeteners to obtain a cheaper sweetener.”

Graham Hall, president and COO, Nutrinova, Somerset, NJ, also offered his perspectives on blending. “We have seen more and more products in every product sector convert from single sweetener systems to a combination of sweeteners. It is all about the taste, and combining sweeteners gives the best taste.”

Orafti’s Ms. Hursh agreed, but also said blending offers product formulators the ability to offer additional functional properties, health or otherwise. “The latest trend in the sweetener area is the blending of several sweeteners to get the best flavor profile and functional properties,” she said. “Blends of artificial sweeteners take advantage of the early onset or lingering sweetness of some of these components to give a well-rounded flavor. Additionally, flavor masking compounds such as inulin are frequently added to round out the off-notes commonly associated with synthetic sweeteners.”

Synthetic vs. Natural: Does it Really Matter?

The difference between a natural and synthetic sweetener is important to consider, depending on the type of consumer being targeted. In other words, a natural sweetener is likely to be more suitable in the natural products channel because that is what those types of consumers demand. The more mainstream channels are less likely to pay attention to whether or not a sweetener is synthetic or natural. However, that may be changing.

Ryan Stirland, vice president of marketing and business development, Xlear Inc., Orem, UT, happens to believe that the difference between synthetic and natural sweeteners is very relevant in today’s marketplace due to the massive growth of synthetic or chemically altered sweeteners, and the growing propagation of products using artificial sweeteners that have raised a number of health questions. “There are still many unanswered questions about the regular use of synthetic sweeteners because many are so new to the market,” he said.

For the health and wellness consumer, Mr. Stirland believes natural sweeteners are still preferred. “Unfortunately, natural sweeteners are not low-cost sweeteners because they are not as common as cane sugar, and not as easily and massively manufactured as artificial sweeteners,” he explained. “With sugar linked to a variety of physical ailments from obesity to tooth decay, consumers are looking for alternatives to satisfy the sweet tooth.”

And then there are others, like Nutrinova’s Graham Hall, who feel there is plenty of room for both artificial and natural sweeteners in the marketplace. “Both artificial and natural sweeteners have a role to play in today’s market. And while consumers are concerned about health and wellness, they are also very concerned about taste,” he said. “Our research shows that taste is of strong importance in determining the success of a product over the long-term.”

Ms. Hursh from Orafti agreed that consumers sometimes consider the differences between natural and synthetic sweeteners, but says most of the time consumers are thinking about other issues. “The difference between a synthetic and a natural sweetener is very important for some but not all consumers,” she said. “Those consumers who place importance on consuming natural and organic foods are not willing to compromise in order to reduce sugar and calorie intake.”

Wisdom Natural Brands’ Mr. Henderson believes that health and wellness consumers are popular targets for products, but he also pointed out the complications of serving this market. “Many health and wellness products want to provide natural options, which is why so many companies are working feverishly on creating the perfect zero calorie natural sweetener. The pro to artificial or chemical sweeteners is the lack of calories, but the negative will always be the addition of potentially dangerous chemicals,” he said. “Natural sweeteners are safer and offer good taste profiles, but the challenge is getting a patent on a natural substance, thus deterring companies from going through the FDA approval process. Without that approval, many natural sweeteners have very limited commercial food applications.”

Sweetener Snapshot

The following is a brief review of the some the sweetener options available, both natural and artificial. This is only a partial list. (More details on a full range of sweetening options can be found by logging on to www.nutraceuticalsworld.com.)

Tagatose is a natural sweetener available from Arla Foods. It is created by converting galactose by raising pH. Galactose is naturally occurring in lactose, which is a sweetener found in milk, but it can also come from other sources, according to Ms. Skytte. “Tagatose has the same chemical composition as fructose, but it is quite different in both its physical and chemical characteristics,” she said. “From a physiological standpoint, it has a much lower caloric value—only one-and-a-half calories compared to fructose, which has four calories.” Tagatose is considered low calorie because it is not absorbed in the small intestine, but rather the large intestine where it is fermented, promoting the growth of lactic acid bacteria, therefore making it prebiotic in nature. Tagatose also has flavor enhancing properties, so it can be used in combination with high intensity sweeteners.

Sunett is an artificial sweetener manufactured by Nutrinova, which has wide scale approval in over 100 countries around the world and can be used in all food applications in the U.S., having gained general use approval in the last two years. “In a market that is becoming more global,” said Mr. Hall, “such wide scale approval becomes very important to major food and beverage manufacturers.” Sunett is very stable and thus can be used to give sweetness in products that are heated or have a requirement for a fairly long shelf-life—Sunett does not degrade over time.

Inulin and oligofructose are natural, soluble dietary fibers extracted from chicory root, which are manufactured by Orafti. These fibers can be used to replace the bulk and sweetness of sugar, while also improving the flavor profile of products sweetened with high intensity sweeteners, according to Ms. Hursh. In addition, inulin and oligofructose contribute to Maillard browning reactions, helping to develop the flavor and appearance of sugar-sweetened products.

Shugr is a product that takes advantage of the popular “blending” trend that is currently sweeping the sweetener market. According to Swiss Research, makers of Shugr, the product is made up of four main sweeteners. These include erythritol, maltodextrin, tagatose and sucralose. Ms. Mauras, marketing coordinator for DNP, which distributes the product, says Shugr has exceptional baking qualities and for that reason is frequently requested for use in baking applications. In addition, she said Shugr is requested for many types of beverage and dietary supplement applications because it contains a prebiotic fiber that promotes intestinal health. Also, for more convenience, Ms. Mauras said DNP offers Shugr in 1X (strength for which 1 teaspoon=1 teaspoon of regular sugar), 5X and 10X, so manufacturers can select a concentration level that works best for their formulations.

Palatinose is an isomer of sucrose and is natural by its processing. “We start with the sugar beet, treat it with microbial enzymes and end up with Palatinose,” said Olaf Weitz, account manager, Palatinit of America. “It is also found in nature in items like honey and molasses.” Palatinose can be used anywhere that sucrose can be used because it provides the same structural functions. “We don’t consider Palatinose a sweetener, but rather a functional carbohydrate because it offers a wide range of nutritional benefits besides being sweet,” Mr. Weitz said. Its nutritional benefits include supporting weight control. In addition, it is very low glycemic and low insulinemic, supplies energy over a prolonged period of time, and does not cause dental caries.

Palatinit’s Isomalt product is a sugar-free alternative to sugar. It is also classified as a sugar alcohol, so it is not considered natural due to its processing. “The demand for Isomalt is not as much driven by its sweetness as it is by its nutritional properties,” said Mr. Weitz. “The benefits include: a sugar-free claim, calorie reduction, and a prebiotic effect, as well as being very low glycemic, low insulinemic and kind to teeth.”

Another product on the market is SteviaPlus, which uses inulin fiber as a filler instead of a high glycemic filler like maltodextrin or dextrose. SteviaPlus has almost 1 gram of prebiotic inulin fiber in every packet. “Just four packets a day equal the fiber in one bowl of whole grain cereal,” said Wisdom Natural Brands’ Mr. Henderson. “The impact is significant.” The only drawback to stevia is its lack of GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status, which prevents it from being used as an ingredient in conventional foods. “While the tabletop sweetener market is large, it is very small compared to the ingredient side,” Mr. Henderson explained. “For a sweetener to be a long-term player it needs GRAS status. Although stevia can be used in dietary supplements, it is limited in scope by its current status.”

While xylitol is very popular in Asia and Europe, it is just beginning to grow in popularity in the U.S., according to Xlear Inc. This growth is evidenced by the number of products containing the natural sweetener, including candy, gum, toothpaste and mints. Xlear’s Mr. Stirland says over 25 years of clinical testing has backed its ability to reduce instances of tooth decay by up to 80%. Indeed, he says sugar-free chewing gums and candies made with xylitol have already received official endorsements from six national dental associations. However, Mr. Stirland does point out the few issues associated with using xylitol daily. “Since yeast cannot metabolize it, xylitol will not work when baking breads or with anything that contains yeast. Furthermore, xylitol does not crystallize as much as table sugar; therefore it does not do well when making peanut brittle or other hard candy,” he said, adding, “Because it is a sugar alcohol, it is recommended that people consume xylitol in gradually increasing amounts to allow the body to adjust to it. Large quantities may cause a laxative effect in certain people.” This is the case for most sugar alcohols.

Sweet Predictions

Given the health issues bombarding consumers worldwide, companies are certain that growth in the sweetener market will continue with the development of new products that can meet the health needs of consumers.

Palatinit’s Ms. Bryant and her colleague Mr. Weitz believe the nutraceuticals market and the general food market will definitely be influenced by the trend toward finding healthier alternatives to traditional foods and beverages in light of the health issues that face the world today. “Healthier alternatives will be the way ahead for many companies moving forward and the sweetener market has a huge role to play in that evolution,” they said. “This will drive sweetener companies to search long and hard to find suitable alternatives.”

Orafti’s Ms. Hursh said natural sweeteners will continue to be an area of interest as more consumers look to reduce their sugar consumption and cut back on synthetic sweeteners. “Natural sugar replacers such as inulin and oligofructose in particular will play a more important role in the nutraceuticals market, as they offer a host of health benefits in addition to replacing sugar,” she said. “These sugar replacers are also prebiotic fibers clinically proven to improve digestive health, boost the body’s absorption of calcium and improve bone mineral density.”

Sugar has always been the sweetener, but the “holy grail of sweeteners” will be one that is chemical-free, without any calories or cavity causing problems, according Wisdom Natural Brands’ Mr. Henderson. “Look for consumers to purchase natural sweetening options over chemicals at an ever increasing rate, especially in the nutraceuticals market,” he offered.

Arla Foods’ Ms. Skytte believes sucrose will become the next thing consumers look to avoid in their food and beverage choices. “I think sucrose will be attacked more and more due to its health profile. It will become one of those ingredients to avoid like fat or cholesterol,” she commented. “There is a high intake of sucrose and there is no need for it, especially in the area of children’s products. Ultimately, the unhealthy aspects of sweeteners need to be recognized and reviewed. When that happens, the doors will open for alternative sweeteners that have a healthier profile.”
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