New Yorkers may still be able to buy an oversize sweetened beverage when dining out, but the overturn of the city’s regulation has not stopped sugar-calorie contents from being a top-of-mind issue in the beverage category. In fact, for many new product development efforts, reduction of caloric sweeteners is the driver of innovation.

The beverage segment cannot afford to ignore the negative press sugar-sweetened beverages continues to receive. Adding to the debate at the end of April was a study published in Diabetologia, the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (posted on-line April 24). It correlated the consumption of drinking one extra 12-oz serving of a sugar-sweetened soft drink each day with a 22% increase in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The authors said the increased risk of diabetes among sugar-sweetened soft drink consumers in Europe is similar to that found in a meta-analysis of previous studies conducted mostly in North America, which found a 25% increased risk of type 2 diabetes associated with one 12-oz daily increment of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. The authors concluded, “Given the increase in sweet beverage consumption in Europe, clear messages on the unhealthy effect of these drinks should be given to the population.”

It is no wonder that across the entire beverage category, sugar-calorie reduction is a major trend.

“Purchase of full-calorie beverages still outweighs reduced calorie, but consumers are showing increased sugar awareness, and appear interested in reducing sugar consumption rather than eliminating it,” said Stefanie Ringo, technical services-senior supervisor for Cargill, Minneapolis.

Melanie Goulson, an applications manager with Cargill, agreed that the biggest recent shift in sweetening emphasis has been the determination of companies to reduce beverage sugar content.

“They are steadily revising their product portfolios,” she said. “Growing confidence in how best to apply naturally sourced, zero-calorie sweeteners has accelerated this trend. Naturally sourced products offer manufacturers an alternative to zero-calorie synthetic sweeteners.”

Natural, calorie-free sweetness

The theme of a number of presentations at BevTech ‘13, the annual meeting of the International Society of Beverage Technologists that was held April 29 to May 1 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., focused on sugar and calorie reduction. A number of suppliers offered ingredient solutions for reducing sugar calories in beverages. For example, Brian Guthrie, a research fellow of physical and sensory sciences with Cargill, introduced new information about formulating with stevia leaf extract. He discussed how next generation stevia sweeteners are being identified through a systematic study of the taste attributes, enabling optimization of steviol glycoside combinations for specific applications.

Stevia-based sweeteners are extracts (primarily the steviol glycoside known as rebaudioside A, or simply reb-A) from leaves of the Stevia rebaudina plant. Stevia-based sweeteners are 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. With reb-A being one of more than 10 sweet-tasting compounds in the stevia plant, suppliers are differentiating themselves by reb-A content.

“Today, stevia extracts taste best when providing about 5% to 6% sugar equivalent sweetness,” Ms. Goulson said. “That means lightly sweetened waters are ideal targets to be fully sweetened with stevia extracts. Other beverages, such as carbonated soft drinks require higher intensities of sweetness, and here stevia tends to be used together with sugars to create significant calorie reduction rather than zero-calorie offerings. Nevertheless, there are established, successful diet carbonated soft drinks on the market, that are sweetened with stevia leaf extract.”

The polyol erythritol is another natural sweetening option. What makes erythritol different than most other zero-calorie sweeteners is it has only about 60% of the sweetness of sucrose, yet maintains a similar bulk density. The attributes make it an attractive partner to other high-intensity sweeteners as the combination generally provides a sweetness profile and mouthfeel comparable to sucrose. Erythritol is also said to help mask the off flavors and lingering aftertastes associated with some stevia-based sweeteners.

“It can be used at up to 3.5% in ready-to-drink beverages,” Ms. Goulson said. “It is synergistic with stevia leaf extracts, giving an improved and more sugar-like quality of sweetness while maintaining zero calorie addition.”

The third natural, zero-calorie sweetener gaining the attention of beverage developers is monk fruit, also known as luo han guo (Siraitia grosvenorii). The small, vine-grown, subtropical fruit gets its zero-calorie sweetness from naturally occurring antioxidants called mogrosides, which are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar.

“Our monk fruit extract appeals to consumers because sweetness from fruit is intuitive and makes sense,” said Mary Kay Reynolds, a food scientist with Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “Consumers see fruit on the label and expect natural sweetness.”

Most sweetener suppliers will agree beverage formulators are pursuing blends of sweeteners, nutritive and non-nutritive, to achieve calorie reductions. This includes using the three relatively new natural, zero-calorie sweeteners, as well as proven artificial sweeteners and the many forms of sugar. One example is high-fructose corn syrup, which has a long history of use as a nutritive sweetener in beverages, and will continue to have a presence in this category, despite unwarranted negative publicity from some groups.

“The solids level and carbohydrate composition of this product makes it stable in both the production facility, as well as finished products,” Ms. Ringo said.

But overall, “The trends seem to be healthy reductions and a move toward natural options,” said Adams Berzins, principal technologist with Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill. “It is often about making better-for-you versions of beverages people already buy.”

Ms. Reynolds added, “We’ve noticed a renewed interest in mid-calorie beverages, both carbonated and non-carbonated, which range in calories from as low as 10 to 90 or more per serving.”

Low calorie, but not diet

Many soft drinks have been fine-tuned to better appeal to older consumers. Specifically, those adults who want real sugar taste without the calories. The Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Plano, Texas, has been offering Dr Pepper TEN since late 2011, and in the past six months has added 7UP TEN, A&W TEN Root Beer, Sunkist TEN Orange Soda, Canada Dry TEN Ginger Ale and RC TEN Cola to its product lineup. The company said consumers can get both the taste they love in their favorite soft drinks and low calories. The sodas use a blend of caloric (high-fructose corn syrup) and non-caloric artificial sweeteners (aspartame and acesulfame potassium) to deliver a full flavor with only 10 calories per 12-oz serving.

The five new TEN products were tested throughout 2012 in several markets and received a strong response, with 40% of sales incremental to the soft drink category. The TEN platform gives Dr Pepper Snapple a leadership position in a previously uncharted space in the U.S. soft drink category — low-calorie soft drinks that are neither traditional diet soft drinks nor considered “mid-calorie” offerings. The company is targeting consumers 25- to 39-years-old who consume regular soda but have reduced consumption because they are watching their calories. Further, according to the company’s consumer research, many men shy away from diet drinks. By including some real sugar and providing calories, the company believes men find the new product appealing.

When it comes to mid-calorie beverage concepts, success has come in the Tropicana Trop50 juice line from PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, N.Y.

“Trop50 is one of the most successful new product launches in the last five years,” said Kate Keller, director of marketing for Trop50. “It’s clear that we’re easing the tension for consumers who love fruit juice but also are sugar and calorie conscious.”

The line began with Trop50 Orange in several varieties, including no pulp, some pulp and no pulp with calcium and vitamin D, and as the brand suggests, contains 50 calories per 8-oz serving. Lemonade, raspberry lemonade, pomegranate blueberry, pineapple mango, red orange and farmstand apple juice beverages soon followed.

The most recent extension of the Trop50 line is Trop50 with Tea. The line includes peach with white tea, raspberry with green tea and pear lychee with white tea. The tea offerings are lower in calories, with 35 to 45 calories per 8-oz glass, depending on the tea variety. All Trop50 varieties use a stevia-based sweetener to keep calories at 50 or less per serving.

“Stevia can cut the calories of juice drinks in half, and is doing so quite successfully for many beverage manufacturers,” Ms. Goulson said. “We are looking forward to similar innovations from the dairy industry and have demonstrated excellent flavored milk prototypes using stevia.”

CytoSport Inc., Benicia, Calif., makers of Muscle Milk, recently introduced Evolve, a dairy protein shake designed for women. Each 8.25-oz shelf-stable product contains 110 calories and 7 grams of sugar. To keep calories and sugar contents low, the product is sweetened with cane sugar, along with stevia and monk fruit.

There is a trend in similar protein beverages as well as sports drinks to use sweeteners that provide a steady source of energy in combination with “fast” sugars. One example is sucromalt, a slowly digestible carbohydrate. At BevTech’13, Ms. Ringo explained to attendees that sucromalt is a full-calorie, low-glycemic sweetener that is ideal for use in drinks where a balanced energy or blunt glucose response is desired.

“Sucromalt has a lower glycemic response than sugar and glucose and is 70% as sweet as sugar,” she said.

Product formulation considerations

Product formulators must remember that sweeteners do not work autonomously in a beverage matrix. In addition to a sweetening system including nutritive and/or non-nutritive sweeteners, it likely also will include other ingredients.

“It is important to remember that colors, flavors, acidulants and solids all impact individual response to a product and affect what a consumer might describe as sweetness,” Ms. Goulson said.

This is because three factors affect the taste experience of beverages: sweetness, mouthfeel and flavor.

“These factors must be examined in relation to each other because any time one is modified, it affects the way the others are perceived,” Ms. Ringo said. “Using the right balance of ingredients provides formulators the necessary solids and sweetness to create beverages with clean flavors and pleasant mouthfeel. The flavoring ingredients, in particular, are an important consideration, as there are synergies between certain flavors and sweeteners.”

In addition, some flavors may help mask undesirable notes.

Some ingredient suppliers offer flavors designed to enhance the sweetness and mouthfeel of sugar.

“Our enhancers enable beverage manufacturers to meet consumer and industry demands for lower sugar and lower calorie products,” said Jessica Jones-Dille, associate director of marketing for Wild Flavors Inc., Erlanger, Ky.

The ingredients also may reduce costs associated with commodity sweeteners.

“Selecting a sweetener system for a beverage requires careful evaluation of many aspects of the product, including pH, processing conditions, storage conditions, sweetness level, desired viscosity, labeling and cost,” said Adrienne Pohrte, a food scientist with Tate & Lyle. “A beverage formulator needs to ensure that the sweetener is stable in the product, delivers the desired characteristics during consumption and attracts the consumer to purchase (and repurchase) the product.”

Mr. Berzins added, “Good systems come from ingredient suppliers working with the customer to understand the process parameters and providing a solution that will require minimal changes to their overall operation. Since new and natural sweetener systems are being tried in all types of beverages, it is a continuing opportunity to understand the interactions of ingredients and processes over periods of production and storage.”