Sandy Almendarez, VP of Content

August 6, 2012

14 Min Read
Sweet Without the Harm

In late May 2012, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages larger than 16 ounces. The measure would not apply to unsweetened and diet beverages, but could mean reduced sales of soft drinks, sweetened teas and coffees, energy drinks and fruit drinks in New York. If approved by the New York Board of Health (a final vote is scheduled for Sept. 13), the measure would take effect in March 2013.

Following in Bloomberg's footprints, Cambridge, MA, Mayor Henrietta Davis proposed a similar ban in June 2012. Also in June, Los Angeles Councilman Mitch Englander introduced a motion to ban sugary drink sales in vending machines at city parks and libraries.

It seems like sugar is the new public enemy number one in the fight against obesity and diabetes. If these bans enter the law books, retailers and consumers in those jurisdictions will be looking for sugar alternatives in their sweet drinks.

Not that they havent been looking for sugar replacements for years. "There is currently a tremendous interest in natural, zero-calorie sweeteners," said Andress Blackwell, vice president, marketing and communications, Swerve LLC. "As more attention is being focused on the health benefits and detriments of foods and beverages, manufacturers are seeking ingredients that provide great taste, but have fewer calories."

Scott Martling, global business development, International Food Network, a consulting firm that provides development services for the food, beverage and nutrition industries, confirmed, "Natural sweetener ingredients are red hot right now, especially the high-intensity/non-nutritive market segment. Our clients are driving for cleaner labels with consumer health and wellness benefits in mind. We have observed the consumer relating natural to healthy, which often gives these ingredients significant advantages over their conventional counterparts that have received bad press over the years."

Market data also shows sugar is becoming persona non grata. According to Natural Marketing Institute's (NMI) Health & Wellness Trends Database®, sugar is among the top nutrients being assessed when consumers read the label of a packaged food or beverage. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is identified most frequently as the type of sugar consumers want to avoid; 44 percent of consumers said they would like to get less HFCS in their diets

Among shoppers who are managing their weight, NMI found 55 percent said they are controlling sugar intake, and a large percentage of consumers who are actively managing a diagnosis of diabetes use products that reduce sugar in some way. Other consumersabout two-thirds (66 percent)are also purchasing low-sugar" products as well as sugar-free" products (59 percent) and those with artificial sweeteners (52 percent).

The alternatives that are seeing sweet sales include natural sweeteners, such as stevia and evaporated cane juice, NMI reported.

Sweet Selections

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is native to South America, but has experienced much success around the globe as a no-calorie, low-glycemic sweetener. In the United States, it has become popular despite a difficult regulatory hurdle it had to address in the early years. For years, stevia had to be labeled as a dietary supplement, and it was not allowed to be added to foods or beverages. Finally, in December 2008, FDA didn't object to two stevia-based sweeteners containing rebaudioside-A (reb-A) achieving GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status. Since then, stevia has made its way into the mainstream with several tabletop products, juices, dairy products and bakery items.

Stevia's earning GRAS status in the United States opened the door in that market, and James Kempland, vice president, marketing for Sweet Green Fields, noted, "The recent approval in the EU and other European countries, with Canada and India to follow soon, based on reports, have created a whole new category for consumers."

Alice Chin, chemist at DNP International, said stevia can safely be used in tea, coffee, confectionary and other foods. "Stevia is 260- to 300-times sweeter than sugar, has almost no calories and is an antioxidant, meaning it helps your body fight off the damage caused by free radicals," she said. "This puts stevia way ahead of other sweeteners that contain no such beneficial antioxidants."

Kempland added, "As an all-natural, zero-calorie sweetener, stevia is a healthier alternative to highly caloric sugar or harmful artificial sweeteners. Our stevia extract is also non GMO, with a low glycemic index, so the product is safe for diabetics and kids."

Peter Sokoloski, private label manager, NOW Foods/Healthco, said its proprietary stevia herbal sweetener called Stevia FSE (full spectrum extract) is the company's "best-selling product by far." SPINS reported products that contain stevia as the sole alternate sweetener source grew 53 percent from $123.1 million to $188.3 million from 2010 to 2011 in the conventional (food/drug/mass) channel. In the natural channel, these same products grew 75 percent from $7 million to $12.3 million.

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol created from birch, raspberries, plum and corn that is found in many sugar-free products, such as gum, candies and other sweets. DNP supplies USP- and DC-grade xylitol. "Xylitol is safe for diabetics, helps prevent cavities, helps prevent ear infections, helps prevent bad breath, and helps tooth enamel and strength," Chin said.

Xylitol is low-calorie (100 g of xylitol contain around nine calories) and, as Chin noted, scientific research has linked xylitol to preventing cavities.1 However, because xylitol is a sugar alcohol, is it not absorbed by the body and can cause digestive discomfort for some.

Chin noted xylitol will continue to be a popular alternative to sugar. "Chinese xylitol is being imported more and more to the U.S. market," she said. "In 2001, no xylitol was being imported to the United States, but over the years, it has now grown to 4,000 MT per year. Weve seen an uptrend for this, and China currently has some world-class manufacturers that have great quality and capability."

A different sugar alcohol, erythritol, is unlike xylitol in that it is absorbed by the body and is less likely to cause digestive pains. But like xylitol, erythritol has been shown to reduce bacteria associated with cavities.2

Swerve LLC's blend of erythritol, oligosaccharides and natural flavors is a natural, zero-calorie sweetener that measures and tastes just like sugar, according to Blackwell. The company offers three options: a granular version, a powdered "confectioner's" version and a version that's 10-times sweeter than sugar for consumer packaged good manufacturers. An unpublished study conducted by Thomas MS Wolever, Ph.D., DM Glycemic Index Laboratories, Toronto, found Swerve is non-glycemic and safe for people with diabetes. Wolever found blood glucose levels after consumption of both Swerve and Swerve 10X were significantly lower compared to sucrose at 15, 30 and 45 minutes. Glucose levels were also significantly lower after both Swerve products compared to a high-potency sweetener at 15 minutes. At 90 and 120 minutes, blood glucose levels were significantly higher after Swerve compared to sucrose.

The prebiotic fiber oligofructose may help to reduce the sucrose content of products while maintaining taste with or without erythritol. Joseph ONeill, executive vice president of sales and marketing for BENEO Inc., said, "It has a moderately sweet taste (30 percent to 65 percent of the sweetness potential of sucrose) without any lingering aftertaste and can be used to reduce calories."

In addition to its sweetening benefits, oligofructose is a helpful prebiotic that has been shown to benefit gut microbiota. Research has shown the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is inhabited by micro-organisms, some of which pose potential health benefits. In 2010, the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Europe Prebiotic Expert Group (academic ) and Prebiotic Task Force (industry) joined in a review of human intervention studies.3 They concluded dietary consumption of prebiotics can result in statistically significant changes in the composition of the gut microbiota leading to immune health benefits, improvements in stool, reduction of the risk of gastroenteritis and infections, improvement in general well-being, improvements in calcium absorption, increases in satiety, reduction of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and reduction of the incidence of allergic symptoms. "Thus, the prebiotic effect is now a well-established scientific fact," they wrote. "The more data are accumulating, the more it will be recognized that such changes in the microbiota's composition, especially increase in bifidobacteria, can be regarded as a marker of intestinal health." The group also noted promising beneficial effects have been demonstrated in some preliminary studies, including reduction of colon cancer and tumors.

Isomaltulose, a slow digestible disaccharide, is naturally derived from beet sugar and is both low-calorie and low-glycemic.4 BENEO's ISOMALT and Palatinose are both isomaltulose bulk sweeteners. ISOMALT has a sugar-like taste with about 50 percent of the sweetness, according to O'Neill. "When replacing sugar in a 1:1 ratio, it offers the sweetness profile of sucrose and similarly contributes to the texture and mouthfeel of the final product," he said. Palatinose is non-cariogenic, according to a review of biological and toxicological studies.5

And a 2012 study led by German scientist David König showed substituting some high-glycemic index carbohydrates with Palatinose resulted in greater postprandial fat oxidation at rest and during physical activity in obese subjects with insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.6 The researchers hypothesized this increased fat oxidation may confer further benefits for long-term weight management and for an improvement in metabolic risk factors.

Further, O'Neill said both Palatinose and ISOMALT are tooth-friendly, and products with them can claim to be non-cariogenic" and to prevent tooth decay" or dental cavities" in the United States. The low-glycemic and tooth-friendly characteristics of Palatinose and ISOMALT have also been positively evaluated as health claims by EFSA, O'Neill said.

Tree Top's sweeteners are made from fruit in the form of dried fruits, concentrates, frozen, fresh, fruit clusters and other formulated fruit ingredients. "Fruit ingredients bring many health benefits from fiber to reduced cancer risk," said Kevin Holland, Ph.D., product developer, Tree Top Inc.

Sweet Designs

Sweeteners, especially those that have received GRAS status, show up in a variety of the expected foods, such as bakery items, beverages, stand-alone tabletop sweeteners and chewing gum. But Blackwell said she is seeing more requests for Swerve to be used in nutraceuticals and flavored alcohol beverages.

Martling noted beverages have been the most popular category for sweeteners. "This market is ripe for innovation for a combination of factors (low barrier of entry and established distribution networks) and uses cutting-edge ingredients to deliver nutritional benefits in conventional and supplement industries."

Kempland agreed with the assessment that beverages is a big space in this market. "To date, the juice category is exploding worldwide with consumers enjoying naturally sweetened juice with fewer calories."

Adriana Rached, marketing and customer solutions director, sweetener solutions, Ingredion Inc., also noted the beverage segment is of particularly strong interest in terms of new sweetener and sweetener system development. "Beverages with high nutritional value, such as flavored milk and juice drinks, are good targets for natural solutions that help limit added sugar and calories, especially for kids. Dairy applications like yogurt are also emerging as an area for sweetener development to create 'even better for you' products."

To make those sweet products, formulators must take their particular sweetener into account, considering sweetness levels, bulking, mouthfeel, texture and aftertaste. Sokoloski reported bitter aftertaste has always been a primary concern with stevia, so Healthco uses a proprietary enzymatic processing method, "which virtually eliminates bitter aftertaste," he said.

Kempland commented that blending stevia with other forms of sugar, such as fructose or sucrose, does not affect the taste of the final product. But, he said when used in zero-calorie products, stevia can impart slight licorice notes, depending on the flavoring system and consumer. "However, there are some excellent food scientists who have created systems to cover this note. When formulating diet products and beverages, the use of different flavor systems and sweeteners like Talin®, can really create great-tasting products." Talin (Thaumatin, from Nutrex) is a low-calorie protein extracted from the Katemfe fruit (Thaumatococcus daniellii) that can be used as a flavor modifier in stevia products.

Rached said stevia flavor and sweetness intensity can be affected by the lot-to-lot consistency, especially if a company is using different stevia varieties. "To overcome this variability, Enliten® stevia sweetener is produced from one single proprietary cultivar, sourced from an Ingredion exclusive farm in South America, she said. "This is key to provide our quality seal and the confidence to our customers that once they formulate it into their products, they dont have to go back to the 'drawing board' to reformulate to adjust for off flavors, sweetness intensity or overall taste profile."

"The natural high-intensity sweeteners can require some creative masking strategies to ensure compatibility with the product flavor profiles," Martling said. "Luckily, the flavor industry is responding with some pretty great products to help formulators and developers."

But the challenges don't stop with taste. "At Swerve LLC," Blackwell said, "maintaining product flowability while warehousing and distributing out of our corporate headquarters in New Orleans is always a challenge." She said the facility is climate controlled to keep humidity at an acceptable level, which helps reduce this problem.

Holland noted color can be an issue when working with fruit sugar. "Ask anyone who has dealt with naturally occurring colors and some of their hurdles," he said. "Natural colors have a tendency to be unstable."

ONeill noted working with isomaltulose and oligofructose has its formulation advantages. "Palatinose and ISOMALT are low-hygroscopic, meaning that they dont lump, which facilitates storage and formulation. Oligofructose shows a better solubility than sucrose and doesnt crystallize." He added oligofructose can be used as a natural fiber source and in baked goods and can contribute to the browning effect. "In cereal bars, oligofructose also has excellent binding properties and good moisture retention, and it can also be used to replace glucose or sugar syrups in the cereal binder. In addition, it inhibits hardening and prolongs shelf life."

'Naturally' Sweet

Besides for GRAS status in the United States, product manufacturers that use sweeteners are restricted by other food laws. "As most of our clients are global consumer packaged goods manufacturers, we are often constrained by regional regulatory authorities as to which sweeteners (and other ingredients) can be used in the products," Martling said. "This landscape is continually changing and requires constant monitoring."

A big issue in this space is the term "natural." ONeill explained, "In the past, we have seen that 'natural' claims were used often with limited reflection in terms of their compliance with applicable FDA or FTC policy. Following the recent and more critical discussions in the United States, manufacturers should base their decision about a 'natural' claim while considering FDA and FTC guidance for the sake of transparent and non-misleading consumer communication/information."

Blackwell noted the minimal processing of the ingredients used in Swerve means its natural" status is not an issue.

While the 'natural' claim is important to regulators, consumers may be overlooking it as an expected product feature. "Based on what we have observed over the past five years, we see natural becoming the next conventional in the not so distant future," Martling said. "Many products that use natural as their positioning will be asking the bigger questions of 'What will become the next natural in order to set my product apart from the competition?'"

And with increased pressure from governmentsand consumersto get more sugar out of the food supply, more sweet alternatives will surface, making product differentiation a key focus for product success. Whether they choose to go with stevia, xylitol, beet sugar or another sugar alternative for their beverage or supplement, choosing the correct formulation method and understanding the regulatory landscape will be crucial.

References Listed on the Next page.

References for "Sweet Without the Harm"

1.       Milgrom P et al. "Xylitol pediatric topical oral syrup to prevent dental caries: a double-blind randomized clinical trial of efficacy." Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009 Jul;163(7):601-7.

2.       Mäkinen KK et al. "Similarity of the effects of erythritol and xylitol on some risk factors of dental caries." Caries Res. 2005 May-Jun;39(3):207-15.

3.       Roberfroid M et al. " Prebiotic effects: metabolic and health benefits." Br J Nutr. 2010 Aug;104 Suppl 2:S1-63.

4.       Holub I et al. "Novel findings on the metabolic effects of the low glycaemic carbohydrate isomaltulose (Palatinose)." Br J Nutr. 2010 Jun;103(12):1730-7.

5.       Lina BA, Jonker D, Kozianowski G. " Isomaltulose (Palatinose): a review of biological and toxicological studies." Food Chem Toxicol. 2002 Oct;40(10):1375-81.

6.       König D et al. "Postprandial substrate use in overweight subjects with the metabolic syndrome after isomaltulose (Palatinose) ingestion." Nutrition. 2012 Jun;28(6):651-6.

About the Author(s)

Sandy Almendarez

VP of Content, Informa


• Well-known subject matter expert within the health & nutrition industry with more than 15 years’ experience reporting on natural products.

• She cares a lot about how healthy products are made, where their ingredients are sourced and how they affect human health.

• She knows that it’s the people behind the businesses — their motivations, feelings and emotions — drive industry growth, so that’s where she looks for content opportunities.

Sandy Almendarez is VP of Content for SupplySide and an award-winning journalist. She oversees the editorial and content marketing teams for the B2B media brands Natural Products Insider and Food and Beverage Insider, the education programming for the health and nutrition trade shows SupplySide East and SupplySide West, and community engagement across the SupplySide portfolio. She is a seasoned content strategist with a passion for health, good nutrition, sustainability and inclusion. With over 15 years of experience in the health and nutrition industry, Sandy brings a wealth of knowledge to her role as a content-focused business leader. With specialization in topics ranging from product development to content engagement, creative marketing and c-suite decision making, her work is known for its engaging style and its relevance for business leaders in the health and nutrition industry.

In her free time, Sandy loves running, drinking hot tea and watching her two kids grow up. She brews her own “Sandbucha” homemade kombucha; she’s happy to share if you’re ever in Phoenix!


Speaker credentials

Resides in

  • Phoenix, AZ


  • Arizona State University


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