Naturally sweet sales opportunities

by Jeff Gelski
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Zero-calorie, high-intensity sweeteners extracted from stevia plants and monkfruit have joined the list of natural sweeteners in the United States, which for years has included honey and raisins. Judging by recent news, the zero-calorie benefit of the high-intensity sweeteners may offer just as much promotional opportunity as the natural benefit.

The caloric content of added sugars made the news Feb. 29. Added sugars in processed and prepared foods made up about 16% of children’s total calorie intake, according to a report published on-line by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, total intake of discretionary calories, which includes added sugars and solid fats, should be 5% to 15% of total daily caloric intake.

The C.D.C. report used figures from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005-08. According to the report, boys daily consumed an average of 362 kilocalories of added sugars, or 16.3% of their total calories, and girls daily consumed 282 kilocalories of added sugars, or 15.5% of their total calories.

The C.D.C. said added sugars include all sugars used as ingredients in processed and prepared foods such as bread, cakes, soft drinks, jams, chocolates, ice cream and sugars eaten separately or added to foods at the table. Examples of added sugar include white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, maple syrup, pancake syrup, fructose sweetener, liquid fructose, honey, molasses, anhydrous dextrose, crystal dextrose and dextrin.

Products promoted for being natural still are popular and a reason to use sweeteners from nature. According to research from Tate & Lyle, P.L.C., London, 75% of consumers find products with 25% reduced sugar or calories appealing and 92% of consumers consider products featuring a naturally sweetened claim appealing. U.S. supermarket sales of products being promoted as natural rose to $23,313,293,417 for the 52 weeks ended June 11, 2011, which marked a 10% increase from $21,297,511,666 in the previous 52-week period, according to The Nielsen Co., New York.

Several options may exist in how to market products with natural sweeteners. Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands, in Nov-ember of 2011 identified 10 trends that will impact the food and beverage market. The No. 1 trend was “pure is the new natural.” It forecast claims such as “purity,” “pure origin” and “true to nature” will appear more often on products. Innova mentioned such natural sweeteners as stevia, agave and coconut sugar.

Stevia’s global expansion

Zenith International, based in Bath, United Kingdom, estimated worldwide sales of stevia reached 3,500 tonnes in 2010, a 27% increase from 2009, and its overall market value hit $285 million. Zenith International forecasts the global market for stevia by 2014 will reach 11,000 tonnes, or equivalent to $825 million by value.

The use of stevia-based high-intensity sweeteners in the United States began to rise in December 2008. The F.D.A. at that time said it had no questions about two petitions regarding the safety of using Rebaudioside A, an extract from the stevia plant, in foods and beverages.

The European Union in November 2011 approved the use of steviol glycosides extracted from the stevia plants as non-caloric sweeteners. Cargill, Minneapolis, responded with an advertising campaign in the United Kingdom for its Truvia calorie-free sweetener extracted from the stevia plant. The U.K. £5 million advertising campaign was to include television, radio and digital formats.

Many suppliers of stevia-based sweeteners have their own brand names. Corn Products International, Westchester, Ill., offers Enliten. The company also is in the process of changing its name to Ingredion, which reflects the company’s position as a leading global supplier of ingredients to a range of industries, including packaged food, beverage and brewing. The name change is part of a global strategy that includes the acquisition of National Starch Food Innovation in 2010.

“One of the key factors of stevia products is the lot-to-lot consistency that can be affected by the use of different stevia varieties, from which the sweetener is extracted, as well as sourcing from various locations,” said Adriana Rached, marketing and customer solutions director, Corn Products International/National Starch Food Innovation. “To overcome this variability, Enliten stevia sweetener is produced from one single proprietary cultivar, sourced from a Corn Products’ exclusive farm in Brazil.
“This is key to provide our quality seal and the confidence to our customers that once they formulate Enliten into their product, they don’t have to go back to the drawing board to reformulate to adjust for off flavors, sweetness intensity or overall taste profile.”

Stevia-based sweeteners have made their way into beverages and yogurts, and grain-based foods products are a possibility.

“With Enliten, there are no shelf life or allergen issues,” Ms. Rached said. “For most baked goods applications, it is key to build back bulk with ingredients such as erythritol or maltitol. Other considerations include achieving the appropriate flavor release, browning and texture.”

Some suppliers emphasize how they extract steviol glycosides such as Rebaudioside A from the stevia plant.

A U.S. patent covers the method used by Sweet Green Fields, Bellingham, Wash., to extract Rebaudioside A from the stevia plant. The fast precipitation process (FPP) is 33% to 50% faster than conventional methods, according to the company. The process relies on a water and food grade ethanol as opposed to methanol or wood alcohol.

Wisdom Natural Brands, Gilbert, Ariz., uses only water in its extraction method for its SweetLeaf stevia-based sweetener.

Monkfruit’s U.S. arrival Tate & Lyle dove into the natural sweetener market in 2001. The company teamed with BioVittoria Ltd. of New Zealand to source and process monkfruit. BioVittoria has a grower network of about 5,000 farmers.

Monkfruit (Siraitia grosvenorii) is grown in Asia and also is known as luo han guo. According to legend, Buddhist monks in China first cultivated monkfruit about 800 years ago. It is 200 times sweeter than cane sugar and provides calorie-free sweetness. The F.D.A. in 2010 said it had no objections to the GRAS status of monkfruit. Potential grain-based foods applications include cereal, granola and various baked foods.
During a Feb. 9 earnings conference call, Javed Ahmed, chief executive officer of Tate & Lyle, spoke about the company’s Purefruit sweetener from monkfruit and how it might compare to sucralose, a high-intensity sweetener from Tate & Lyle that is not natural.

“Reception from customers has been very, very encouraging,” Mr. Ahmed said. “Given the potential taste profile here and the applicability of this ingredient, a lot of our customers are very interested.

“The specific categories that we are initially looking at are beverage and dairy. So those would be the two initial areas of application. And frankly, at least in the medium term, nobody would see this as a replacement for sucralose at all. This is a completely different proposition. This is all about natural, and it would compete much more in the natural space, as opposed to the sucralose space.”

Blue California, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., also has a monkfruit sweetener in BlueSweet LHG extract. A panel recently completed a self-affirmed GRAS certification for the extract, which may be used in such grain-based foods applications as nutritional bars and cereals.

More than just sweeteners

Natural sweeteners often may do more than just improve a product’s taste.

According to a survey from the National Honey Board, Firestone, Colo., 68% of wholesale bakers use honey in their bakery. They use it for the following reasons: 55% flavor/sweetening, 40% all-natural sweetener, 26% customer appeal, 23% humectancy/moisture retention, 16% extended shelf life/mold inhibition, 7% coloring, 7% other (dissolves better, locally produced, recipe calls for honey).

“Honey’s use in the baking industry extends well beyond sweetening and includes increasing the shelf life of bakery foods through the three main factors that help maintain crumb softness: preventing moisture transfer, delaying starch re-crystallization and hydrolyzing starch,” said Catherine Barry, director of marketing for the National Honey Board. “Liquid honey is hygroscopic and enables products to maintain their moisture content far longer than products that use dry sweeteners.”

Honey acts as a natural humectant, she said. The amylase present in honey promotes crumb softness by hydrolyzing starch, which contributes to moisture retention. Honey’s fructose content also holds in a bakery food’s moisture, thus reducing dry products, and the ingredient’s high acidity inhibits mold growth.
Naturally occurring organic acids in honey, such as gluconic acid, enhance the flavors of spices, fruits and nuts. When used with cinnamon, herbs, spices or other flavors, honey helps bring out those tastes and aromas.

“Honey sugars caramelize during baking, adding a golden color to a variety of products,” Ms. Barry said. “As a result, bakers may have to reduce oven temperatures to prevent over-browning.”
Raisins also may benefit baked foods in various ways.

In the United States, 46% of all the California raisin tonnage sold goes to grain-based foods, according to a study from the California Raisin Marketing Board, Fresno, Calif., and Technomic.
“They are used in breads, rolls, brioche, muffins, scones, pies, energy bars, cookies and virtually any other baked product you can think of,” said Larry Bragg, senior vice-president of marketing for the board. “Naturally a large portion of that 46% goes into cold and hot cereals, too.

“California raisins are a terrific replacement for processed sugar in baked items often on a one-to-one substitution basis. Raisin paste (ground-up raisins) is also used as a fat replacer in other baked goods, mostly muffins and cookies. For energy bars, raisins help the bars hold together and again replace commercial sweeteners. Raisins also serve as a natural shelf-life extender for all types of baked products thanks to their proprionic acid content.”

Raisins offer even more functional and health benefits.

“California raisins are high in antioxidants, are fat- and cholesterol-free, have almost no sodium, and contain good amounts of potassium, and iron,” Mr. Bragg said. “Raisin juice concentrate is often used in grain-based foods to add color to bread dough, as depending on the percentage used, the concentrate can impart light brown to a deep brown color to bread and give it a richer, healthier look.”

The consumer image of high-fructose corn syrup as a natural sweetener might be debatable, but the Corn Refiners Association, Washington, has an F.D.A. ruling for evidence. The F.D.A. in 2008 said it would not object to HFCS being labeled as natural if a common processing method that used a specific enzyme as a processing aid was used in making the HFCS.
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