Summer vacation is still a month or so out, but most beverage marketers already are thinking about the 2014-15 term, as new standards will go into effect dictating what foods and beverages may be sold in elementary and high schools across the country.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards published last year are mandatory guidelines for all foods and beverages sold to students during the school day. The standards go into effect July 1, 2014, and apply to products sold in vending machines, school stores, snack carts and a la carte lines.

All schools may sell plain water (with or without carbonation), unflavored low-fat milk, unflavored or flavored fat-free milk and milk alternatives (as permitted by the national school breakfast and lunch programs), 100% fruit or vegetable juice and 100% fruit or vegetable juice diluted with water (with or without carbonation) and no added sweeteners.

There are no sugar or calorie restrictions on the products; however, portion size is regulated. Elementary schools may sell up to 8-oz portions, while middle schools and high schools may sell up to 12-oz portions of milk and juice. There is no portion size limit for plain water.

The standards also allow additional “no-calorie” and “lower-calorie” beverage options for high school students. This is where sugar reduction ingredient technology comes into play, as the only way to reduce calories in sweet flavored beverages is to replace sugar and other nutritive sweeteners with high-intensity sweeteners, which may be nutritive or not. There are also no restrictions on the type of sweetener, so both those considered artificial and natural are fair game.

The high school beverage guidelines vary by portion size. Twenty ounces is the limit for calorie-free, flavored water (with or without carbonation) and other flavored and carbonated beverages that are labeled to contain less than 5 calories per 8 fluid oz or 10 or fewer calories per 20 fluid ozs. Lower-calorie beverages containing up to 40 calories per 8 ozs or 60 calories per 12 ozs may be sold in up to 12-oz portions. Caffeinated beverages remain an option for high school students.

Beverage formulators must keep in mind the new standards are the minimum requirements for schools. States and schools that have more stringent standards will be able to maintain their own policies. For example, California forbids the sale of any carbonated beverages, regardless of calorie content. Also, all fruit- or vegetable-based drinks must contain no less than 50% juice with no added sweeteners.

Innovative sweetening solutions

Recognizing the trend in reducing sugar in all beverages, those intended for schools as well as the mainstream health- and wellness-marketplace, ingredient suppliers have been aggressively fine-tuning their offerings in order that marketers may quench consumers thirst with fewer calories. Due to the many challenges inherent to producing reduced-sugar beverages, knowledge of sweetness interactions and synergies is critical.

“Consumers continue to desire less sugar with the same taste and mouthfeel,” said Luis Ferrey, marketing manager for beverages with Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill. “As ‘diet’ products come under increased scrutiny, space is emerging for low- and mid-calorie options combining nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners to deliver a product that fits the trend and the taste consumers are looking for. The diet space will remain, however, as a segment of the public prefers to keep their caloric intake at zero.

“Our diverse portfolio and proprietary technology converge to help formulators reduce sugar while maintaining the same drinking experience of a full-sugar beverage. Using ingredients such as stevia extract, sucralose, acesulfame potassium (ace-K) and aspartame, as well as other high-potency and nutritive sweeteners, with or without polyols, in combination with our wide options of texturing ingredients, helps formulators make it happen.”

Depending on the beverage, combining sweeteners seems to be a common and often successful approach to reducing calories.

“We offer two sugar reduction systems for beverages,” said Bill Riha, technical manager for Celanese Food Ingredients, Irving, Texas. “One is our ace-K, which has been a quality choice in the market for decades. The other is our sweetener system that debuted at the 2013 I.F.T. Annual Meeting and Food Expo. This sweetener system is a combination of ace-K, sucralose and a novel booster specifically designed to promote sweet taste, reduce artificial taste and shorten the lingering profile of the sweet aftertaste.”

The various grades of the system offer beverage manufacturers the opportunity to reduce added sugar by 30% to 100%.

“It does this while maintaining the authentic taste profile that consumers expect,” Mr. Riha said. “This sweetener system performs very well in low- and no-calorie carbonated
beverages, non-carbonated beverages, flavored water, energy drinks, juices, dairy, cocktails and drink concentrates.”

On a label, the system is declared as acesulfame potassium, sucralose and natural flavors.

When it comes to the increasingly popular, all-natural, high-intensity sweeteners based on extracts from the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana), suppliers are differentiating by sourcing, processing methods and composition. All of this affects the stevia ingredient’s taste of sweet and flavor of sweet.

“Stevia products are not alike,” said Thom King, president of Steviva Ingredients, Portland, Ore. “Their only commonality is that they are all derived from the stevia plant. Multiple compounds within the stevia leaves — steviol glycosides — have characteristics ranging from sweet to bitter. Isolating the purest, best-tasting components from leaves grown in a controlled environment is half the challenge. The method used to extract these compounds significantly impacts flavor and quality.”

The company recently introduced a concentrated stevia extract that contains 98% minimum rebaudioside A (reb A), which has intense sweetness, Mr. King said.

“The flavor is a sharper, sweet profile in comparison to the softer, smoother profile of our original extract,” he said. “We also have an erythritol and stevia blend that is a 1:2 plugin replacement for sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup. It is used in several carbonated soft drinks and even more energy drinks. By using this sweetener combination, manufacturers have enjoyed up to a 98% sugar reduction.”

Erythritol is a bulk sweetener that has zero sugar, zero calories and zero aftertaste.

“It tastes about 60% to 70% as sweet as sugar, provides bulk and masks the aftertaste of intense sweeteners,” said Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager for Cargill, Minneapolis.

It also works well with stevia-based sweeteners, which continue to drive growth and innovation in the food and beverage industry, with more new beverage launches using stevia sweeteners than any other high potency sweetener, according to research from Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands. It is no wonder suppliers continue to invest in the science of improving the taste of stevia.

According to sensory research from Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill., as many as 83% of consumers are sensitive to the bitterness sometimes associated with reb A.

“Many stevia products with high concentrations of reb A must be formulated with other sweeteners and masking agents because of its bitterness,” said Adrienne Pohrte, team leader of beverage applications for Tate & Lyle.

To address the issue, Tate & Lyle developed a proprietary stevia sweetener using analysis of the optimal composition of steviol glycosides, in-depth technical work and extensive sensory testing, Ms. Pohrte said.

“Our stevia does not have intense bitter/licorice aftertastes, which eliminates the need to hide behind other sweeteners or masking agents and provides a superior, cleaner taste for foods and beverages,” she said. “Our stevia sweetener allows for a 50% or greater sugar reduction in beverages without a bitter aftertaste. We recently developed a fruit-based beverage prototype using this stevia ingredient, which contains 75% less sugar and 70% fewer calories than its full-sugar version.”

PureCircle USA Inc., Oak Brook, Ill., offers a proprietary stevia solution.

“We have an innovative portfolio of stevia sweeteners and natural flavors to help beverage manufacturers achieve their calorie reduction targets,” said David Nichols, global marketing manager. “Our next-generation stevia sweetening system was introduced in 2012 and recently expanded with new ingredients. The focus is no longer on a single ingredient solution. Rather, it is a customized approach to help formulators achieve the desired flavor profile and cost-in-use objectives without sacrificing taste.”

At the Natural Products Expo West tradeshow in Anaheim, Calif., this past March, Cargill introduced a new line of stevia-based sweeteners that was awarded the best ingredient for a beverage. The next-generation sweetener portfolio uses Cargill’s proprietary taste prediction model, which leads to clean sweetness in even some of the most difficult-to-perfect zero-calorie and reduced-calorie food and beverage formulations, according to the company.

“Our customers are looking for new solutions to broaden their product offerings with stevia sweeteners, and it’s not just about finding a single steviol glycoside that works for everything,” said Scott Fabro, global business development director for Cargill Corn Milling North America. “Cargill designed these ingredients to deliver an optimal sweet taste at high use levels, which has been a limitation with previous stevia-based products. Our proprietary model allows us to predict in a precise way the right combination of steviol glycosides to deliver high-quality sweet taste.”

The company focused not only on optimizing taste and sweetness, but also on creating ingredients that enable a sensible total formulation cost for manufacturers.

“As we bring new stevia-based innovations to market that enable product developers to work in high sweetness formulations such as carbonated soft drinks, we always keep in mind that our solutions must be commercially viable from a cost-in-use perspective,” said Melanie Goulson, sweetness applications leader at Cargill.

Mr. Fabro said the new ingredient portfolio allows for calorie reductions of greater than 50% in more challenging beverage applications such as carbonated soft drinks.

“Our taste-prediction model results in a proprietary composition of ingredients that delivers optimum taste and performance for the most challenging reduced-calorie applications.”

Cargill also offers inulin, which is considered an invisible fiber.

“It can be incorporated into almost any beverage without affecting taste or texture,” Ms. Stauffer said. “It can be used to reduce sugar in formulations, while also boosting fiber content.”

Chicory root fiber, which may be declared as inulin on ingredient statements, has a natural sweetness of 65% of sucrose.

“It can help developers reduce sugar in all types of beverage applications,” said Scott Turowski, technical sales manager, Sensus America Inc., Lawrenceville, N.J. “Chicory root fiber distinguishes itself in that it is an all-natural, low-calorie sweetener. It also shares many of the same functional properties as sugar and high-fructose corn syrup and can function as a direct replacement in most applications.

“It works particularly well in dairy applications and has been shown to reduce sugar by more than 20% in flavored milks, while not negatively affecting the taste of the finished product.”

For example, Organic Valley, La Farge, Wis., uses unrefined organic pure cane sugar to sweeten its aseptic organic low-fat vanilla-flavored milk. To keep calories at 150 per 8-oz serving, the company includes 2 grams of inulin fiber to assist with sweetness. The product does not flag fiber content nor use inulin in its chocolate-flavored version. The fiber in the vanilla variant is an added bonus.

“The desire to reduce sugar in beverages will continue to grow, particularly as it relates to children’s health and nutrition,” Mr. Turowski said. “The bans on sugary drinks in schools across the country will continue to drive the need to seek out new solutions that consumers will approve of.”