The sugar alternatives market is hot, growing at more than twice the rate of the food ingredients sector as a whole. Shane Starling canvasses the sweet prospects for these super-selling ingredients
While low-calorie sugar alternatives have been in existence for more than a century, it wasn't until 1981 that they hit the big time when the US Food and Drug Administration approved the high-intensity sweetener aspartame for use in dry foods and as a tabletop sweetener. Two years later, it was approved for use in soft drinks. The UK soon followed suit.
The zero-calorie branded ingredient, NutraSweet, was an instant success, the swirl logo becoming synonymous with the rise of diet soft drinks. NutraSweet was an appealing sell to an increasingly weight-conscious market and it remains a powerful sell as obesity and diabetes rates have soared to pandemic levels.
Twenty five years later, and many other sweeteners have entered the market offering different versions of the reduced-calorie sweetener idea, all with their own variations in terms of taste, mouthfeel, sweetness intensity, formulation potential and manufacturing process. Some don't heat well. Some have sharper after-taste issues. Others don't blend well. But their place in the market is established.
From high-intensity sweeteners like sucralose, acesulfame-K and neotame, to sugar alcohols like maltitol, tagatose, xylitol and erythritol, to natural alternatives like stevia and Lo Han, the sugar alternatives market is growing at more than twice the rate of the food ingredients sector as a whole, with market analyst Freedonia predicting worldwide sweeteners demand will grow by 8.3 per cent until at least 2008.
Mintel's Global New Products Database recorded 3,920 product launches containing sweeteners between 2000 and 2005 in the US alone, while the Sugar Association notes (begrudgingly) that there are 26 approved sweeteners in the US.
The sweetener success story of recent years is undoubtedly UK ingredients giant Tate & Lyle's patented sucralose ingredient, Splenda (in partnership with McNeill Nutritionals in the US). Splenda's success has in part been down to a perception that it is somehow less artificial than other sweeteners. Because of this, Splenda is the subject of a legal challenge being mounted by the Sugar Association for alleged false advertising. The marketing in question is Splenda's slogan 'made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.'
The Sugar Association argues this catch phrase implies Splenda is natural, unlike say, aspartame or acesulfame-K, which it is not; it is derived via a synthetic manipulation of sucrose molecules by adding three atoms of chlorine for three hydroxyl groups on the sugar molecule. Despite the implication, UK-based food ingredients consultant Mike Lindley believes McNeill will win its case, not expected to be heard within the year.
"It's a clever marketing approach," he notes. "It's left up to consumers to make any 'natural' associations. The claim is quite accurate — sucralose is derived from sugar and does taste like sugar. I think they'll win the case."
Splenda's market appeal has been greatest in the US, but Lindley points out this success has come more as a table-top sweetener than a foodstuff ingredient. "In terms of sweetener use, carbonated soft drinks account for roughly 80 per cent of US sweetener demand," he says. "A further 10 per cent is table-top sweeteners.?The rest is chewing gums, sauces and dressings, and other foodstuffs."
Coca-Cola has launched a diet cola, Coke Light, in Sweden using sucralose, which was only approved for use in Europe in 2004. (The latest sweetener to be approved in Europe was tagatose, in December 2005.) Further sucralose interest may be spurred by a potential price plunge as Tate & Lyle's product patent has expired, opening the door to generic alternatives (although it retains process patents). Aspartame margins plunged 80 per cent when NutraSweet was exposed to competition.
Market analyst Morgan Stanley noted in a December report: "Within three years of generic competition to sucralose, its price will decline by 30 per cent, Tate & Lyle will lose 30 per cent share in the market and its earnings margins will drop from 48 per cent to 10 per cent."
Indian ingredients supplier Pharmed Medicare has patented its own version of sucralose and is in the process of bringing the ingredient, Solo, to a market it hopes will become a duopoly. "We believe that the combination of our patent portfolio with the existing Tate & Lyle portfolio will pose a significant challenge to any third commercially viable nonpatent-infringing manufacturer," Pharmed president Sundeep Aurora said in a statement.
In the blender
With so many sweeteners on the market, and new ultra-intensity entrants like neotame and alitame, ingredients suppliers continue to refine sweetener solutions often in the form of proprietary blends. German sweetener supplier Nutrinova, which supplies a branded form of ace-K called Sunett, has been advising sauce and ketchup makers to blend Sunett with sucralose. It claims the result is 'virtually indistinguishable' from the taste of sugar. There are many such offerings directed at various sectors of the food and beverage industry, which is also proactive in developing blends in-house.
As Nutrinova's global communications director Barbara Plath notes: "Sweetening systems that rely on single sweeteners often miss the mark. Depending on product requirements, nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners can be combined to deliver calorie-free or calorie-reduced sweetness without compromising on taste. Together with selected sweetening partners, there is the possibility of reducing sugar in applications that require high-temperature stability, such as baked goods." Other applications include confectionery, dairy products, table sweeteners, canned fruit, ketchup, sauces, dressings, nutraceuticals and jams.
Holland Sweetener Co has a proprietary offering, Twinsweet, a blend of aspartame and ace-K.
"Twinsweet does not affect blood sugar levels so it is safe for diabetics," a spokesperson tells FF&N. "In most cases, further blending is not required. However, it is possible for manufacturers to add other intense sweeteners to drinks. Successful combination can also be made with sucrose, various sugar syrups and/or high fructose corn syrup. Twinsweet is aimed at a wide range of food and beverage applications too, but has special benefits when applied to confectionery products."
The company said it was working with companies in Europe, North America, China and Australia.
Twinsweet had been launched in Xylifresh 100 Sensitive dental health chewing gum manufactured by Leaf Holland, and Rolo low-carb confectionery where sugar is replaced by a combination of bulk and intense sweeteners including Twinsweet.
However, Japanese-based aspartame supplier Ajinomoto warns against blending its aspartame with other sweeteners. "Adding a sweetener such as saccharin or ace-K which tastes less like sugar than aspartame, does not make aspartame taste more like sugar," says a spokesperson. "Taste tests show that people cannot tell the difference between a soft drink sweetened with 100 per cent sugar and one sweetened with 60 per cent sugar and 40 per cent aspartame. Ajinomoto does not supply blends of sugars and aspartame, but many food and drink companies blend aspartame and sugar in their finished products.
"Growth of low-calorie soft drinks in continental Europe has been restricted by the use of cheap blends of intense sweeteners with low levels of aspartame. Low-calorie soft drinks have been much more successful in countries where high aspartame blends are used (UK), or where aspartame is used as the sole sweetener (US)."
Cargill has launched an enzymatic conversion of sucrose called Isomaltulose that will employ low-GI marketing and has dental benefits. "It will be marketed as slow digestibility," says Mark Wastijn, marketing director of Cargill Texturising Solutions. "In addition, its low-GI appeal is also attractive. It is food-friendly. Cargill has done a number of clinical studies to measure and confirm the lower glycaemic and insulinemic response compared to glucose and sucrose."
Cargill is targeting sport and fitness drinks, energy drinks and tablets, cereals and cereal bars, meal replacements, dairy drinks and yoghurt, and tooth-friendly confectionery.
German-based Palatinit is marketing its glucose ingredient, Palatinose, in a similar way, with a heavy accent on its GI-lowering potential and dental friendliness.
"Everybody is blending now," observes Tom Vierhile, executive director of New York-based market researcher ProductScan. "That's where it's at. Nobody is relying on any sweetener to do it all. You've got some different options out there now. Aside from functionality and formulation issues, there are wide-ranging taste profiles too. Some of the diet soft drinks have some exotic sweetener mixes, and it is all about taste. There seems to be a trend to reduce the calorie load of a product, so you get the taste but only some of the calories. We identified that as a trend to look for in 2006."
But there can be drawbacks, says Lindley. "The more sweeteners you have in a blend, the better the taste can be, but food manufacturers have a problem with this because they have to declare more ingredients and this can be a turnoff for many consumers. While you do see products with four sweeteners on the label, it's rare. Achieving that incremental taste benefit at the cost of another couple of sweeteners may not be worth it many producers' eyes."
Back to nature
Honey is the obvious natural sweetener, but it has limited capability as a food ingredient. Other natural sweeteners like stevia, agave syrup, thaumatin and Lo Han are finding favour with a greater number of commercial players.
Formulation, taste and regulatory hurdles remain, but the public is keener than ever on all things natural, and these sweeteners have a bright future, according to Lindley.
"The natural/artificial divide provides an easy point of difference for consumers to understand," he observes. "Many consumers would prefer not to go anywhere near anything artificial. But aside from regulatory approval, which is lacking in some markets, there is a huge opportunity for natural sweeteners that can deliver commercially."
Botanicals suppliers such as New Zealand-based, BioVittoria, Wisdom Natural Brands of Arizona and California's Amax Nutrasource are notching increased sales in Lo Han and stevia.
"Demand for stevia has increased significantly in the US, even though it only has approval as a dietary supplement but not a food ingredient," says Wisdom president Steve May. "Demand is also growing in Asia and in South America, despite raw materials prices nearly doubling in the past 18 months."
Stevia does not have approval in Europe.
He adds: "In the case of Lo Han, our Sweet & Slender brand blends Lo Han with fructose to provide a more granular texture as well as more sugar-like flavour."
New Zealand-based Lo Han supplier, BioVittoria, has launched PureLo. "We're targeting products looking to offer reduced carbohydrate, reduced or no sugar, especially for diabetic and children's products," said director Steve LeFebvre.
Amax says its Lo Han extract powder is suitable for use in applications that include ice cream, tortillas, baked goods, pastries and pizza dough.
Bulk sweeteners have attracted food producers looking to reduce calories in their food items while skirting some of the manufacturing and shelf-life issues that can accompany high-intensity sweeteners. In a nutshell, polyols, most of which are low calorie not zero calorie, handle the oven better than high-intensity sweeteners, but some have more side effects if consumed at high levels.
Observes Lindley: "When you've got sucralose, which is 500-600 times sweeter than sugar, when you take out a gram of sugar, you are only putting back 1/500th of that bulk. So although you can bake with sucralose, the bulking factor means the total cost of replacing sugar is 300-400 hundred per cent. It's a technical hurdle that is yet to be overcome. Polyols replace sugar one-to-one, so that is not an issue. That is why there is increasing high intensity/bulk sweetener blending going on."
Erythritol is gaining a lot of attention as a polyol with minimal side effects, although it is noted for a cold feeling in the mouth upon consumption. Perhaps with this in mind, Cargill has launched Sweet Design targeting frozen dairy and sweet bakery items.
Swiss Group is doing good business with an erythritol/tagatose blend (Shugr) being sold as a table top sweetener and food ingredient, and others such as German supplier, Jungbunzlauer, are busy promoting erythritol blended ingredients.
Jungbunzlauer's erythritol product manager, Ferid Haji says of its erythritol ingredient: "It has less gastrointestinal effects, better taste, qualitative and quantitative improvements of blends with intense sweeteners and erythritol compared to blends of other polyols and intense sweeteners, as well as lower calorie content. It can be blended with all popular intense sweeteners like aspartame, ace-K and sucralose. Erythritol can lower the metallic after-taste of intense sweeteners and take away bitterness."
French-based ingredients supplier Roquette offers a range of polyols like sorbitol, maltitol (in powder and liquid form), mannitol and xylitol. Antoine Barre, market development manager says: "This range is completed by Nutriose, a range of soluble fibres, which can be used to replace sugars and bring in additional nutritional benefits."
Offerings like Ocean Spray's fruit extracts provide other sweetener alternatives. It has developed a cranberry extract with 50 per cent less sugar than its existing extract.
Lab activity has led to the development of clear organic sweeteners offered by the likes of Belgian ingredients supplier Orafti. Its Naturesweet organic liquid sweetener has resolved the colouring and taste off-notes previously inherent in organic sweeteners due to typical sources such as brown sugar cane. It is targeting organic soft drinks and other beverages like juices.