CHICAGO — Nearly three in four Americans are trying to limit or avoid sugars, according to the International Food Information Council’s Food and Health Survey 2022. At the same time, the leading reason why Americans don’t limit or avoid sugars is because they like sweet-tasting foods and drinks.

Americans’ love affair with sweetness — when that sweetness comes from sugar — can lead to chronic health problems, including obesity and type 2 diabetes. Replacing and reducing sugar in processed foods is a long-term goal of both the health care system and food and beverage industry. This goal has researchers exploring technologies to naturally deliver a sweet taste without calories or off flavors, all while keeping labels clean in order to appeal to the 16% of Americans who are following a clean-eating lifestyle, the leading eating pattern in the country, according to the IFIC survey.

Sweetness-enhancing volatiles are found in a variety of fruits. They function by enhancing perceived sweetness via neural mechanisms. The science is the basis of the use of steviol glycosides derived from Stevia rebaudiana and mogrosides found in monk fruit extracts for non-caloric natural sweetness. Plants also contain sweet proteins, such as thaumatin. These have cleaner tastes, but their high potency produces lingering effects. Further, the fruits that yield them are often difficult to cultivate.

It is also possible to isolate compounds that do not release inherent sweetness but may enhance the potency or perception of existing sweetness. This isolation may enable the reduction of added sugars to achieve the same level of perceived sweetness.

Researchers at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), Lake Alfred, Fla., have discovered technologies to unlock the natural sweetness of fruit to assist the food industry with lowering sugar content and calories in products while maintaining sweetness and taste. Yu Wang, associate professor of food science at UF/IFAS, managed the multi-year project that found 8 new sweetener or sweetness-enhancing compounds in 11 citrus cultivars. Their work recently was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

“We were able to identify a natural source for an artificial sweetener, oxime V, that had never been identified from any natural source previously,” Dr. Wang said. “This creates expanded opportunities for citrus growers and for breeding cultivars to be selected to obtain high yields of sweetener compounds.”

The study also demonstrated that the proposed metabolomics-based screening strategy could boost the identification of taste modulators with low content in other natural resources. These compounds may be used as novel natural sweeteners or sweetness-enhancing compounds in the future.

Another approach to reducing sugar but maintaining sweetness has been identified by Israeli startup Better Juice. The company has developed an enzymatic process that uses ingredients perceived as natural to convert simple sugars — fructose, glucose and sucrose — into prebiotic dietary fibers and other non-digestible molecules, while maintaining the full flavor, body and naturally occurring complement of vitamins and nutrients of the fruit. It can reduce up to 80% of sugars in natural fruit juices as well as in fruit-based ingredients such as purées, according to the company.

The patented technology is straight forward. The fruit product flows through a conversion process that relies on immobilized microorganisms containing active enzymes. The enzymes bio-convert the sucrose to dietary fiber, the glucose to gluconic acid and the fructose to sorbitol. The product keeps its texture, some of the sweetness and the newly converted compounds, but does not contain the immobilized microorganisms. The continuous-flow bioreactor readily is easily installed into traditional fruit processing production lines.

Enzymes may be categorized as processing aids. They are proteins that act as catalysts to accelerate a desired reaction. Every enzyme performs a specific task, with its active site recognized for the ability to modify a compound on a substrate.

Both enzymatic processing and metabolomics-based screening are clean label technologies that present an opportunity for food and beverage manufacturers to reduce sugar content in processed foods. They unlock the sweetness of fruit without the calories.