Stevia faces taste tests

by Jeff Gelski
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Dairy products, especially yogurt, and baked foods, including cookies, stand a good chance of becoming the next categories for inclusion of all-natural, zero-calorie stevia extracts. Yet a flurry of new product launches featuring the high-intensity sweeteners has yet to happen. Finding the just-right, specific sweet taste for their respective products has challenged formulators.

New products in the beverage category, involving such brands as Sprite and Odwalla, entered the market after the Food and Drug Administration in December of 2008 said it had no questions about the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status of specific stevia extracts.

This January, more than a year after the F.D.A. GRAS statement, Breyers launched yogurt products with stevia extracts in its YoCrunch 100 Calorie Packs line. Similar new yogurt products have yet to hit the market, in part because yogurt contains more solids than beverages.

“Beverages contain a large amount of water and very little solids besides sweeteners (sugars or high fructose corn syrup),” said Jason Hecker, group marketing director for PureCircle, a supplier of stevia extracts. “When sugar or HFCS is replaced with high-intensity sweeteners like stevia, sugar-equivalent sweetness and flavor profile are main objectives for product development.

“Sweetening dairy products, especially yogurt, with stevia, has to address the sweetness profile, texture and water-holding characteristics of yogurt due to the wide spectrum of viscoelasticity of yogurt products.”

Matching the taste of yogurt products already on the market

presents another challenge. Many yogurt consumers are accustomed to the taste of aspartame, a high-intensity sweetener that is not natural, said Mariano Gascon, vice-president of research and development for Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, Wis. Yogurt manufacturers thus may request that stevia extracts replicate either the taste of sugar or the taste of aspartame. Wixon offers Mag-nifique for Stevia, a taste modifier that may be used to replicate such tastes.

Mr. Gascon said acids tend to enhance the sweetness of stevia. Adding citrus or fruit flavors, both rich in acid, to yogurts might be an option when using stevia extracts. Experiments continue, but yogurt product launches with stevia still may be a while in coming, he said.

“I don’t see it by the third quarter,” Mr. Gascon said. “I have seen activity, but I have not seen as high a number of new products as was projected.”

Jim Kempland, vice-president of marketing for stevia extract supplier GLG Life Tech Corp., Vancouver, B.C., said, “Based on the feedback we are getting from the manufacturers within these categories (dairy and baked foods), the development work is being done. Food and beverage manufacturers also have to determine where to position an all-natural, low-calorie product line.”

Yogurt manufacturers need to decide what calorie figure they are shooting for,

particularly if they are blending stevia extracts with sucrose, Mr. Kempland said. Such sucrose-stevia blends have been shown to reduce caloric value by as much as 60% while maintaining the same mouthfeel and consistency of the product, he said.

Stevia extract suppliers say a market exists for products with all-natural, zero-calorie sweeteners, especially products for children.

“Our own consumer research study, which focused on moms, found that moms avoid artificial sweeteners for their kids and are concerned with the amount of sugar in their kids’ diets,” Mr. Hecker of PureCircle said. “As a result, stevia has a tremendous opportunity as a replacement for both sugar and artificial sweeteners in yogurt, especially in kid-targeted products.”

Penny’s Low Fat Desserts, Grass Valley, Calif., promotes its products for being low in fat, low in calories, high in fiber and all-natural, said Penny Pearl, company founder. Since her company avoids the use of artificial sweeteners, Ms. Pearl was quick to try out an all-natural high-intensity sweetener.

Penny’s Low Fat Desserts this year launched three products with stevia extracts: a chocolate truffle cookie, a toffee cinnamon cookie and a banana bran muffin. Each product has 3 grams of sugar. The products are sold on the Internet and at some Whole Foods stores in California.

“It’s very, very challenging to do this,” Ms. Pearl said of adding stevia extracts to baked foods. “Baking is an extreme science experiment. The balance of everything is so important. When you remove the sugar, all the properties change.”

Food scientists from Cargill worked with food scientists from Penny’s Low Fat Desserts to develop the new products. Cargill offers Truvia, a sweetener

with both stevia extracts and erythritol, a polyol that replaces the bulk of sugar. Penny’s Low Fat Desserts in turn developed its own proprietary blend of erythritol and stevia extracts.

Erythritol comes with its own issues, Ms. Pearl said. Too much erythritol may create a cooling effect, and its use also may bring about too sweet of an aftertaste.

“It’s a very, very fine balance that has to be reached,” Ms. Pearl said.

Mr. Gascon of Wixon said demand has led to a tight erythritol market this year.

Food and beverage formulators still have much to learn when working with stevia extracts, Mr. Gascon said, but stevia extracts still are the only all-natural, zero-calorie, high-intensity sweeteners on the market.

“I don’t see stevia going away anytime soon,” he said.

Global Stevia Institute to launch
CHICAGO — PureCircle Ltd., a producer of stevia products, plans to introduce the Global Stevia Institute this month. The institute will promote accurate, credible and consistent information and resources about stevia to health professionals, consumers and the food industry, according to the company.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob has been named executive director of the institute. Dr. Ayoob is a pediatric nutrition specialist and associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, N.Y.

“Dr. Ayoob is an ideal leader for the Global Stevia Institute,” said Magomet Malsagov, chief executive officer and managing director of PureCircle. “He is an internationally known educator on nutrition issues. We trust that he will empower the Global Stevia Institute to reach people across the globe with science-based stevia education and how it applies to today’s consumers as they strive for better health and wellness.”

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