War on sugar opens market for natural alternatives

War on sugar opens market for natural alternatives

  Fat used to be the enemy. Then carbohydrates of all stripes. Now sugar is being vilified as “toxic.” Here's which ingredients stand to benefit from the latest torch-and-pitchfork episode in the mainstream media.


We’ve all been waking up from the same bad dream since the 1970’s. No, not the one where you’re locked in a dance-off with John Travolta and Nixon is still president. The one where you look around and realize we’re all overweight, diabetic, and getting heart disease and cancer in near epidemic proportions. Let the finger pointing and blame throwing commence!

In the 1970’s we fingered fat as the bad guy, clogging our arteries and making us buy bigger pants. A government commission even mandated that food manufacturers reduce fat in foods in order to combat heart disease. And yet in a recent interview for a “60 Minutes” segment titled “Is Sugar Toxic?” Robert Lustig, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said that rates of heart disease continue to skyrocket, along with metabolic syndrome and diabetes. He suggested that this could be a result of the food industry replacing the fat they took out of food with sugar or high fructose corn syrup in an effort to maintain good taste.

And sugar’s troubles don’t stop there. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism and led by Kimber Stanhope, Nutracon 2012 speaker and nutritional biologist at the University of California–Davis has demonstrated that consuming HFCS or fructose increased participants’ levels of LDL cholesterol as well as other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. How? Consuming too much sugar overloads the liver with fructose. The liver then converts some of it to fat. Some of that fat ends up in the bloodstream and generates the dangerous, small, dense LDL cholesterol that contributes to cardiovascular disease and heart attacks.

The segment goes on to say that consuming sugar causes insulin spikes which can serve as a catalyst to fuel as many as a third of common cancers including breast and colon cancers. Lewis Cantley, Harvard Medical School professor and head of Beth Israel Deaconess Cancer Center, explains that these tumors have insulin receptors that bind circulating blood glucose and signal the tumor to grow. But the problem with sugar is more deep-rooted than this, explains Cantley.

“Prior to modern times and the availability of unlimited quantities of processed sugars that are rich in fructose (and thus taste very sweet), the natural sweetness in our daily foods came mainly from starch (which is almost pure glucose and is not very sweet per gram eaten).  Thus our brains evolved to judge how much carbohydrate to eat based on how much sweetness was tasted during the meal and how much glucose arrived at the brain over the next dozen minutes or so.” But the problem with fructose, he says, is it’s very sweet but doesn’t have the glucose the body is expecting. “This is ultimately frustrating to the brain—all foreplay, relatively little reward.”

After even just a few weeks of consuming a diet high in fructose our brains adjust and no longer associate sweetness with satiety. “This lack of satiety leads to greater consumption of all types of carbohydrates, especially sweets, ultimately leading to obesity and insulin resistance,” says Cantley.  

While segments like the one on “60 Minutes” and research like the kind being done by Stanhope and Cantley might seem to signal the death knell of the sugar industry, they could spell opportunity for other parts of the food and beverage industry.


Coconut strikes again

This past February Dr. Oz devoted a segment on his show to promoting coconut palm sugar as a replacement for cane sugar. The primary draw? Coconut palm sugar has a lower glycemic index than cane sugar because it’s an unrefined sweetener made up of long-chain saccharides—as opposed to the short-chain saccharides that make up refined table sugar. The long-chain saccharides are absorbed more slowly by the body. According to Big Tree Farms, a coconut palm sugar producer, coconut palm sugar also contains “significant nutrients, vitamins and over 14 important amino acids. These ‘other’ materials, and especially the amino acids, are thought to act as a buffer to the sucrose component of the coconut sugar, thereby slowing the speed by which the sugars are absorbed into the blood stream.”

 So where simple sugars like sucrose and fructose produce blood sugar spikes and can contribute to insulin resistance, coconut palm sugar helps to maintain more stable blood sugar levels, reducing the after-snack insulin response. Plus coconut palm sugar is a whole-food sweetener and contains potassium as well as iron.

The environmentally conscious among us love coconut palm sugar because it produces 50 to 75 percent more sugar per acre than cane sugar, while using a fifth of the resources, explains Navitas Naturals. The Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations organization devoted to improving nutrition and agricultural productivity for people around the world, has recognized palm sweeteners as the most sustainable sweetener in the world.

With all of these amazing attributes and Dr. Oz on its side expect to see coconut palm sugar cropping up on shelves and in ingredient lists in the coming year. 


From zero to hero

According to data from Nielsen presented by Matthew Jacobs, marketing manager for Truvia with Cargill at Nutracon 2012, nearly 50 million US households (42 percent) currently buy products that use stevia-based sweeteners. That comes primarily from ready-to-drink beverages, but also, notably, from finished product sugar substitutes. Jacobs went on to show that the stevia category has seen overall growth of 40 percent by dollar volume from October 2010 to October 2011. Cargill’s Truvia—a stevia-erythritol blend—has been picked up in numerous finished products from yogurt to juice and jelly.

Tim Avila, president of Systems Bioscience, lauds the marriage of stevia with this zero-calorie sugar alcohol to create a more useable, better-tasting blend for food and beverage applications as well as table-top use. Erythritol, he explains, provides an excellent bulking sweetener while stevia brings the high-intensity, natural sweetness into play. At 250-times the sweetness of sugar, stevia only claims about half the intensity of sucralose (near 600-times sweeter than sugar), but provides consumers with a viable alternative to artificial sweeteners.

It was hard to walk an isle at Expo West this year without running into monk fruit. Perhaps the “newest” natural sweetener to appear in products in North America is derived from a Chinese plant called luo han guo, or monk fruit. The intensity of the sweetness in monk fruit extract is directly proportional to levels of a compound found in the fruit called mogroside V.  It’s 300 times sweeter than white sugar and has already been picked up in big-name finished products brands like Kashi, Bear Naked, and So Delicious.

Compared to stevia, mogroside V is significantly closer in structure than either rebaudioside-A in stevia or sodium saccharin, making it an ideal option for food and beverages, explained Alan Liao, CEO, of Guilin Layn Natural Ingredients Corp. “Luo han guo extract is popular in chewing gums. It has a characteristic herbal taste, which makes it suitable for some herbal drinks or other beverages,” Liao said. “The extract will have some change in taste and will get slightly darker when the temperature is above 130oC, while stevia can sustain a higher temperature of 230oC.”

Tate & Lyle has also been experimenting with reb A–mogroside V combos, to reduce the lingering bitterness of reb A without having to use a sugar alcohol like erythritol. Such combinations could be particularly cost effective depending on the product, explained Paul Paslaski of BioVittoria, vice president of US sales and marketing for PURERUIT. “In a neutral pH product like a chocolate milk, you get a tremendous amount of sweetness from monk fruit, which makes it very cost effective,” Paslaski said. “In a more acidic application, you’d need to use more, but in combination with stevia it can work out to be very cost effective here too.” 


Back to blackstrap

Nutrient rich blackstrap molasses has been making a comeback with consumers—particularly natural-product consumers—in recent years. Packed with vitamin B6 and iron as well as other essential minerals like potassium, magnesium, manganese and calcium. “Of all the additional sugars we play with in our diet, blackstrap molasses is by far the healthiest,” said Mona Morstein, ND, chairwoman of nutrition at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Ariz. “That is where all of the nutrients from the sugarcane and the sugar beets are.” Molasses also ranks lower on the glycemic index than table sugar and many other natural sweeteners.

But it’s not just health-conscious consumer picking up the blackstrap. In September of 2011, Horizon Science achieved self-affirmed GRAS status for Benecarb™, a molasses-based ingredient proven to lower the blood glucose response of a range of food products, including sugar, using an entirely natural ingredient.


Too sweet for our own good?

In the US, we tend to formulate things sweeter than other parts of the world. If we keep formulating no-calorie products just as sweet as fuller-calorie products, we aren’t teaching people to cut back on sweetness, in terms of palate. Rather than focusing so much on no- or low-calorie, maybe we should be focusing on developing products that just taste good—but are only moderately sweet.

—Mary Mulry, president of Foodwise, a food consultancy


Could there be a correlation between consuming high-intensity sweeteners with the growing incidence of cataracts and joint failure? Our bodies and our physiologies have not evolved and kept pace with advances in food science and technology.

When your brain registers a rush of sweetness associated with products containing high potency sweeteners, it is designed to compute the caloric/carbohydrate implication of that sweetness and therefore releases insulin. If there is no sugar for the insulin to interact with, it is very likely that it will seek other readily available forms of sugar in our systems. Sugars are an essential component of joints and the eyes and it is conceivable that an unintended consequence of routinely consuming high potency sweeteners may be the growing incidence of health issues as a result of excess/erratic insulin in the body.

—Kantha Shelke, PhD, principal of nutrition think tank Corvus Blue LLC


Non-nutritive sweeteners, should not directly cause insulin resistance as they don’t get converted to fat in the liver. However, they almost certainly play the same trick on the brain as fructose does, leading the brain to dis-correlate the total consumption of sweetness as a mechanism of satiety. There are certainly studies in rats that support this idea. Thus, ultimately, one will consume much more carbohydrates (and crave even more real sugar). So the result will likely be obesity and insulin resistance, potentially increasing the risk of cancer.

—Lewis Cantley, Harvard Medical School professor and head of Beth Israel Deaconess Cancer Center


Move over, corn, there’s a new grain in town

Oats. That’s right. Oats.

Specifically, a new natural sweetener made from oats, called OatSweet, is the latest entrant to the sweetener game.

OatSweet is the charter product of Oat Tech, Inc., and is supported by ten years of research and development in proprietary natural processes for oats-based ingredients.

OatSweet is made from oats using an all-natural process, yielding a clean, subtle flavor profile ideal for a wide range of applications, including nutrition bars, cereals, beverages, desserts, baked goods, and more. OatSweet syrup’s flavor profile contributes pleasant but subtle caramel and honey notes with a clean finish. OatSweet is all natural, vegan, non-GMO, made from oats grown in North America, and manufactured in the United States.

We like it so much we awarded it the Best Ingredient for Food at Engredea 2012. When delivering the award, here’s what we said:

“Consumers are looking more and more for natural and nutritive sweeteners as an alternative to sugar and high-fructose corn syrup in their food and beverage products. This oat-based sweetener is functionally similar to brown rice syrup and adds a pleasant caramel-honey sweetness to everything from cereals to confections and beverages.”

As a new sweetener option that offers manufacturers desirable characteristics at a competitive price, OatSweet is an ingredient that consumers can easily understand and enjoy.

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