Americans have long been sweet on sugar. Sucrose, the carbohydrate made of fructose and glucose that is commonly called table sugar, is derived from sugar cane or beet root, but is usually refined to remove the cane juice. The most popular form of sucrose is cane sugar, which is found in many kitchen cabinets. It became a table-top item in America in the mid 1800s, when sugar tariffs were lifted. By the time World War I ended, sugar consumption increased to 120 pounds per person each year, according to the American Dental Association. In 2008, Americans consumed 20 million short tons (40 billion pounds) of caloric sweeteners, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). With four calories per gram, the weight adds up in American waistlines.
In recent years, sugar has been implicated as a major factor in epidemic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. It also has a bad rap for causing tooth decay. For these reasons, consumers want something to sweeten the deal: a low-calorie sweetener that wont cause these problems.
Consumers want a natural sweetener that is completely safe, delicious and results in no immediate or long-term side effects, said Jim May, president and CEO, Wisdom Natural Brands.
They arent only looking for a lack of harm, but consumers desire sweeteners with health benefits. Consumers are becoming more interested in their health and what they eateven when they are having something sweet they want to gain minerals, vitamins and other nutrients that the new wave of natural alternative sweeteners have to offer, said Wes Crain, vice president, Navitas Naturals.
In addition, the taste has to be there. No matter the health benefit, taste continues to play a key role, said Jennifer Ohlinger, marketing communications manager, Corn Products U.S. Until recently, the combination of natural, good taste and zero calories was not available to consumers.
Sweeteners can be broken down into nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners. Nutritive sweeteners are generally more natural, as they are more likely to be free of chemical alteration or processing. Nutritive sweeteners tend to be as sweet as or less sweet than sucrose. They are metabolized by the body and provide an energy source, a.k.a., calories.
Many of the traditional sweeteners are higher on the glycemic index (GI), while many natural nutritive sweeteners are lower. For instance, sucrose has a GI of 68, honey has 55 and agave has 42. An ingredient made from beet sugar, ISOMALT from Beneo-Palatinit, has a GI of 2. The lower the GI, the smaller the fluctuations in blood glucose and insulin levels. Eating foods lower in GI can lead to reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes and is the key to sustainable weight loss, according to Sydney University Glycemic Index Research Service (SUGiRS).
ISOMALT contains half the calories of sugar and is about 50 percent as sweet as sucrose ISOMALT has a stable molecular structure, said Claudia Meissner, marketing manager, BENEO-Palatinit GmbH. As a result, it prevents the production of harmful acids in the mouth that refined sugar would produce, and can therefore be claimed to be tooth friendly. Meissner also said due to customer confidentiality, full details of studies on BENEOs Palatinose functional carbohydrate cannot be disclosed. However, she did report Palatinose, also derived from beet sugar, was shown in separate studies conducted at the Freiburg University Clinic in Freiburg, Germany, to promote the bodys own fat oxidation and to boost performance in athletes.
Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) , with a much lower GI at about 1, is a root that has been used as a sweetener for centuries in Peru. It can thank fructooligosaccharides (FOS) for its sweet taste. FOS is a mixture of glucose-terminated fructose chains with a maximum length of five units, which offers fiber and is considered a prebiotic. Yacon also contains inulin, which has been shown to increase calcium absorption1 and is also a prebiotic. [Inulin] is the primary food supply for the good intestinal flora, which, when properly nourished, strengthens the immune system and contribute to the overall health and well-being of the human body, May said.
Yacon offers about half the calories of honey and research shows it offers health benefits. A 2005 study from the Czech Republic showed yacon slowed the formation of phenylglyoxylic ketyl radicals and concluded, These results make yacon leaves a good candidate for use as a food supplement in the prevention of chronic diseases involving oxidative stress.2 Also, yacon extracts may help prevent and treat chronic diseases involving oxidative stress, particularly diabetes in rats.3
It has also been shown to provide metabolic benefits in normal rats, including no increase in hypoglycemic activity and significantly reduced serum triacylglycerol levels.4 On the human side, yacon syrup produced a significant decrease in body weight, waist circumference and body mass index (BMI) in obese and slightly dyslipidemic pre-menopausal women.5 Additionally, decrease in fasting serum insulin was observed as well as an increase in defecation frequency and satiety sensation. Fasting glucose and serum lipids were not affected and a positive effect was found in serum low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels.
In addition, It is an excellent source of nutrients, including bioavailable protein, potassium, vitamins A and C, calcium, iron and phosphorus, as well as fiber, said Cain. Yacon is also an excellent source of antioxidants and is known to help strengthen the immune system.
While xylitol may not have any effect on the immune system, this alternative sugar found in many fruits and vegetables, including various berries, corn husks, oats and mushrooms, is also considered safe for diabetics. With a GI of 7, xylitol is about as sweet as sucrose with less than half of the calories. Because it looks, tastes and acts like sugar, xylitol can be used for baking and sweetening many of the foods we consume on a daily basis, said John Peterson, marketing department, Xlear Inc. And since xylitol contains 40 percent fewer calories than sugar, it can also be used as part of many of todays popular diets.
Xylitol has already been incorporated in the popular diet of Finland, mostly in chewing gum because of its potential to reduce tooth decay. A study from University of Washington suggests exposure to xylitol (8 g/d) in a twice-daily topical oral syrup during primary tooth eruption could prevent up to 70 percent of decayed teeth in children aged 15 to 25 months.6 It was also shown to prevent new caries and to re-mineralize existing lesions in children who chewed xylitol-sweetened gum compared to subjects who chewed sorbitol-sweetened gum, gum sweetened with xylitol-sorbitol mixtures or no gum.7 Further, studies have shown a statistically significant reduction in colonization of mutans streptococci in the teeth of the children whose mothers regularly chewed xylitol-sweetened gum compared with those of the children whose mothers received fluoride or chlorhexidine varnish treatment.8 The children themselves received no preventive treatment and were examined annually for caries until 5 years of age. In children aged 5, the caries rate for those in the xylitol group was about 70 percent lower than for those in the fluoride or chlorhexidine group. However, in a three-year study in Lithuania, no statistically significant reduction in caries was shown among subjects who chewed xylitol-sweetened gum compared to subjects who chewed sorbitol-sweetened gum, or compared to those who chewed gum sweetened with acesulfame potassium and saccharin.9
A downside of xylitol is it cannot be used in cooked food products because it is destroyed by heat.10
Non-nutritive sweeteners are calorie free, have a GI of zero and can be up to 600 times sweeter than sucrose. Most non-nutritive sweeteners are not considered natural because they are usually chemically altered and processed. Saccharin, for instance, is made of grapes and petroleum. Sucralose, marketed as Splenda by Johnson & Johnson, and aspartame, trademarked as Equal and NutraSweet, are in this group of sweeteners.
However, one natural, non-nutritive sweetener has taken the natural market by storm. Since stevia was affirmed GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by several firms in 2008, its popularity is has risen dramatically. Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is a South American herb that has been used as a sweetener by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay for hundreds of years. The leaves of this small, green plant can be 300 times sweeter than sugar.
Prior to the GRAS designation, informed, health-conscious consumers did not really care if stevia was labeled as a sweetener or a dietary supplement, said May. The major problem was FDA would not allow consumers to be informed by the manufacturers or marketing companies that stevia was sweet or that it enhanced the natural flavor of any food or beverage to which it was added. It is difficult to sell a product when the consumer is not permitted to know what it tastes like or how it is to be used. Now that we are a sweetener, consumers can be informed.
The GRAS designation has created an urgency for more stevia-sweetened products. The regulatory clearance in a major market such as the United States has definitely created more momentum among food companies, speeding up the product development activities to shorten the market introduction time, Ohlinger said.
However, some are still wishing FDA would be stricter on some so-called natural sweeteners. In some cases, there has not been enough regulation, said Cain. Some companies claim just about anything as natural. For example, some marketers were claiming high-fructose corn syrup is natural because it comes from corn. On the other hand, there have been instances where there has been too much regulation, such as with a natural plant like stevia.
Besides having no calories, stevia offers health benefits to those looking to reduce blood pressure. In a two-year randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled trial, 168 Chinese men and women, aged between 20 and 75 years, with mild hypertension took capsules containing 500 mg of stevioside powder or placebo three times daily.11 After two years, the stevioside group had significant decreases in mean systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure compared to the placebo group as well as an improved quality of life. Similar results have been found in rats.12 In type 2 diabetic patients, stevia reduced postprandial blood glucose levels, indicating beneficial effects on the glucose metabolism.13
Because stevia is so sweet, some manufacturers dilute it to make it similar to sucrose in taste. Sun Crystal, from McNeil Nutritionals, blends pure sugar cane with stevia, which adds 5 calories to the 1.3-g serving size. The sweetness is equal to 2 g of sugar and can be used in baked goods.
Another natural non-nutritive sweetener is erythritol, which occurs naturally in various fruits and fermented foods. In a taste test, a significant increase of mouthfeel and decrease in astringency and bitterness was observed upon adding 3 percent of erythitol to tea.14 Along with taste, it does not affect mean plasma glucose or insulin levels15 and in a 2001 unpublished study, it exhibited hydroxyl radical scavenging activities. In addition, in vitro incubation with a range of Streptococci species has shown neither lactic acid nor other organic acids are produced by erythitol, which offers protection from tooth decay, much like xylitol.16
However, a problem with using erythitol as an ingredient is its dependence on the environment, at least for Wholesome Sweeteners, who produces the GRAS erythitol product, Organic Zero. Our greatest threat to maintaining supply is beyond our farmers and producersit's hurricanes, said Pauline McKee, vice president marketing, Wholesome Sweeteners. Because the tropics are perfectly suited for growing cane organically, in just a couple of instances, entire cane crops have been completely decimated by hurricanes.
While not all natural sweetener manufactures have to worry about hurricanes, these ingredients are sure taking the industry by storm with the number of different products that now contain them. Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president, Blue California said its ingredient Good&Sweet, isolated Rebaudiosde A (Reb A) from stevia leaf, has broad food applications. Our product can be used in a variety of food products: confectioneries, chewing gum, chocolates, cereals, sauces, jellies, fruit juices, flavored drinks, carbonated drinks, baked goods, pies, ice cream, candy bars, dietary supplements, protein drinks, nutritional protein bars, etc. Good&Sweet can be added to chewable tablets or any liquid formulation that requires excellent taste and no calories.
With the numerous products that natural products can sweeten and with the desire for low-calorie options, the future for this category should be bright.
Until recently, natural non-caloric sweeteners options have failed to provide satisfactory taste or consistent availability, said Ohlinger. This is changing, and products with high Reb A content, such as Enliten® high-intensity sweetener, are expected to rapidly gain consumer acceptance across several beverages and food categories, as consumers will be able to enjoy naturally sweetened products that taste good and are lower in calories.
Jason Hecker, marketing director, PureCircle USA Inc. said its Reb A product should also sell well. Since the December 2008 GRAS approval of high-purity Reb A, there has been a marked increase in development activity, he said. We would expect a significant amount of new product launch activity and increased consumer interest during the coming year. We believe there is now an unstoppable trend toward natural in the sweetening market. We expect to see a significant increase in the categories that natural sweeteners will be applied to as manufacturers make a shift away from artificial sweeteners and utilize natural sweeteners as a way to reduce sugar content.
With natural sweeteners replacing some of the billions of pounds of sugar used each year, American stomachs may become smaller and fewer may experiences major diseases. As McCollum put it, There is a bright future for stevia as a natural sweetener; it has the potential to revolutionize the food and beverage industries by reducing calories in products from cereals to ice cream. Stevia alone will not solve the obesity epidemic in this country, but it is definitely a major step in the right direction.
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