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Sweetener suppliers can help reduce added sugars

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If you’re ready for the day when FDA mandates that all food and beverage labels stipulate not only how much total sugar is in each serving, but how much of that sugar is “added,” take a bow: Prepping for the “added sugars” deadline has been no mean feat.

First, you had to recalculate your nutritionals. Then you had to get over the sticker shock of realizing how much added sugar your product actually contained. Then, if you knew what was good for you, you had to mount a concerted effort to get those levels down. And as anyone in dairy knows, cutting sugar — added or otherwise — is never simple.

For those of you still cowering under the R&D bench, hope remains. Sweetener suppliers have been fast at work developing sugar alternatives that make reductions more doable.

“Dairy formulators have more tools than ever to balance consumer demand for products that keep added sugars in check but still deliver on taste,” noted Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager for Cargill, Minneapolis.

 

Sugar is sugar?

FDA’s long-awaited added-sugars deadline falls on Jan. 1, 2020, for brands with $10 million or more in annual sales — and a year later for brands with less. Having announced the new rule back in May of 2016, the agency’s given the industry plenty of time to adapt.

Even so, the decision to call out added sugars elicited grumbles from some who thought FDA was making an unnecessary distinction — that the bottom line is total sugar, not how much a processor might add for flavor or function.

But this sugar-is-sugar argument might be running its course. FDA cites scientific evidence — and the opinions of the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization — supporting efforts to trim added sugars. It also contends in an agency guidance that although such sugars can be a part of a healthy diet, “if consumed in excess, it becomes more difficult to also eat foods with enough dietary fiber and essential vitamins and minerals and still stay within calorie limits.”

Nathan Pratt, RD&A scientist, nutrition for Kerry, Beloit, Wis., sees FDA’s point.

“Yes, sugar is sugar,” he said, “but added sugar gets called out specifically so that we don’t discourage people from eating healthy foods that contain sugar.”

Andy Estal, director, customer technical service, Americas region for Beneo, Morris Plains, N.J., also pointed out that there are differences among sugars.

“Our food-labeling system still focuses on chemistry to define a sugar, but it doesn’t focus on physiology or the quality of that sugar,” he said. “And the quality of the sugar is very important, as it can determine how the sugar is metabolized.”

 

Sugar shock

FDA hopes that underscoring added sugars will bring these points home. The agency defines added sugars as sugars that are “either added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars (free, mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice of the same type.”

FDA also hopes the change will educate consumers as to how much added sugar is in what they buy. The agency estimates that Americans get an average of 13% of their total calories from added sugars, with most coming from snacks and sweets — dairy desserts and sweetened yogurts included — as well as sugar-sweetened beverages.

Indeed, while an 8-ounce serving of skim milk contains about 12 grams of sugar from naturally occurring lactose, the same serving of chocolate skim milk typically delivers anywhere from 20 to 32 grams of total sugars.

“So under the new guidelines, that chocolate milk would have to be labeled with 8 to 20 grams of added sugar per 8 ounces, which is a definite red-flag amount,” Estal said. “Ice cream and yogurt also get most of their sweetness from added sugars, and label-reading consumers will be alarmed by these numbers.”

 

Motivating factors

Parents are especially on guard for added sugars in their children’s foods, Estal said.

“So items like flavored milks and other dairy products geared toward children should be on the radar for added-sugar reduction,” he said.

And they are — along with other dairy staples liable to take a reputational hit once the added-sugars callout goes live.

“The majority of dairy customers we work with are asking for help reducing sugar in ice cream, flavored milks and yogurts,” observed Christine Addington, senior dairy technical service specialist at Cargill. “The label change has been a big motivator.”

However, the transition is proving “easier for some than for others,” said Logan Cisewski, RD&A scientist at Kerry. He sees customers sorting into two camps.

“There are proactive brands that’re more in tune with the marketplace and have anticipated the impact the labeling will have on their brands,” he said. “Then there are those who take a more reactive approach and will wait to see how consumers respond to the new label with their products as is. Based on internal research, I think it’s fair to say that we’ll continue to see more sugar-reduction projects trickle in even after the deadline.”

 

Plan of attack

How formulators attack those projects varies by situation, Addington said.

“Some are replacing some sugar with alternatives like stevia and erythritol,” she noted. “Others are tackling the issue with smaller serving sizes. There are even situations where we can cut back on some of the sugar in the formulation without a lot of other adjustments. It really depends on the application and the extent of added-sugar reduction desired.”

Addington has also seen customers use a “stair-step” approach.

“Instead of going from full sugar to a no-sugar-added product, they start by reducing sugar by, say, 30% and gradually working their way to 100% no-added-sugar with the help of sweeteners, bulking agents and texturizers,” she said. “This helps consumers get used to the reformulation.”

 

Unintended consequences

The process might sound simple enough, but customers are finding that dairy-related sugar reduction actually can be complicated. After all, sugar brings with it some key functionality. Getting the sweetness right might be the easy part.

“Beyond sweetness, sugar contributes moisture control, texture, mouthfeel, freezing-point depression, microbial control and more,” Addington said. “So addressing the textural and other challenges associated with reduced-sugar dairy can be more difficult.”

A classic example is frozen dairy desserts, which Addington called “some of the most complex food systems we’ve created.” Because they comprise all three phases of matter — solid, liquid and gas — lowering their sugar levels necessitates a deep understanding of how each formulation component interacts with the matrix’s water, fat and air.

“So when you replace sugar with a high-intensity sweetener like stevia, you’ll need to adjust stabilizer and emulsifier selections to provide more effective water control,” Addington noted.

Meanwhile, in products such as flavored milk, processors could see issues tied to body, mouthfeel and texture, or even a reduction in overall flavor perception, Cisewski said.

“It really depends on the product,” he noted.

Another consideration is sugar solids’ preservative effect in more pH-neutral systems and some acidified products, noted John Ashley, principal scientist at Kerry.

“Coupled with the trend toward free-from chemical preservatives like sorbates and benzoates, this places a heavier emphasis on innovative processing techniques to mitigate microbial growth,” he said.

 

Turning over a new leaf

In any event, formulators usually get the ball rolling with a comprehensive survey of sugar alternatives. And as the highest-profile “natural” alternative out there, stevia is attracting attention.

“Natural high-intensity sweeteners like stevia keep growing in popularity,” said Elena Zalewski, associate marketing manager, sweetness for Ingredion Incorporated, Westchester, Ill.

Her company’s 2018 proprietary research found that the vast majority of consumers not only are aware of stevia, but also recognize it as a low-calorie sugar replacement.

“‘Naturalness’ and purity were top perceptions,” Zalewski added, “indicating stevia’s potential to appeal to consumers who want naturally derived ingredients.”

Stevia hasn’t always fared so well, as earlier iterations suffered from problems with sweetness quality and a bitter aftertaste that limited how much sugar it could realistically replace. Improved technology and greater blending savvy has changed the game, Addington said, “significantly improving sweetness quality, enhancing sweet-sour balance and delivering a more robust flavor — all critical for a successful product.”

One key has been the discovery, characterization and scaling of steviol glycosides that taste better than those that dominated previous generations of the sweetener.

“Our scientists invested more than 300,000 hours studying the stevia leaf and learning how its steviol glycosides act alone and in combination at a molecular and a sensory level,” noted Andy Ohmes, global director of high-intensity sweeteners for Cargill. “Today we know that there are more than 70 sweet compounds in the stevia leaf, and we see great potential in two of those — Reb M and Reb D — for offering heightened sweetness and a taste closer to real sugar.”

Most stevia suppliers now build their sweeteners around these glycosides. The problem, though, is that Reb M and Reb D occur in the stevia leaf in slim concentrations, forcing producers to up their proportion using other means. For example, Cargill generates sufficient quantities of Reb M and Reb D for its EverSweet sweetener via fermentation.

“Unlike other stevia products,” Ohmes said, “it provides sweetness without bitterness or a licorice aftertaste, delivering a more rounded taste profile with a faster sweetness onset.”

Maga Malsagov, CEO, PureCircle, Oak Brook, Ill., added that his company’s stevia technology allows it to “significantly boost production” of steviol glycosides such as Reb M and Reb D.

“That means we can supply stevia sweeteners in amounts that customers need as they expand stevia use,” he said. “And we can do it cost-effectively.”

SweeGen, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., uses a proprietary “leaf-based bioconversion process” to ramp up production of Reb M and Reb D, said Katharina Pueller, the company’s director of natural sweetener business. It’s gotten help in commercializing the end product through a partnership with Ingredion, exclusive global distributor of SweeGen’s Bestevia Reb M sweetener.

Meanwhile, Ingredion introduced its own Enliten Fusion stevia sweeteners.

“[They] combine the best attributes of multiple steviol glycosides and provide formulators cost-optimized stevia solutions designed for targeted use levels and sweetness profiles,” Zalewski said.

 

Alternatives to the alternative

In recent years, PureCircle has observed significant growth in dairy launches that use stevia sweeteners, Malsagov said.

“We’re seeing it in products ranging from ready-to-drink beverages to ice cream and drinkable yogurts, to name a few,” he noted.

But stevia is not the only game in town. Ravi Nana, polyols technical service manager at Cargill, offers the sugar alcohol erythritol as another zero-calorie sweetener option applicable to dairy.

“It looks and tastes like sugar and is often paired with high-intensity sweeteners because it has a sugar-like aftertaste and helps mask off notes,” Nana said.

For her part, Catherine Barry, director of marketing for the National Honey Board, Firestone, Colo., encourages dairy developers to consider honey as a sucrose replacement. Though, as an added sugar, it won’t help dairy brands address the new nutrition label, it does have benefits for consumers and formulators alike.

Honey has the “natural” status consumers seek. And because it can taste up to 1.5 times sweeter than sugar on a dry-weight basis, processors can generally use less of it than sugar to get the same desired level of sweetness, Barry said. The secret to honey’s potency lies in its high fructose-to-glucose ratio.

“The combination of these sugars produces an ingredient that’s naturally sweeter than sucrose because fructose is slightly sweeter than sucrose, and glucose is less sweet than sucrose,” Barry explained.

“We’re seeing more honey used in flavored milks, milk alternatives, cream cheeses and ice cream,” she continued. “Honey has a positive track record in the dairy industry, and most processors have used it in some manner, so reformulating to include more honey may not be as big a challenge as with other substitutes.”

Quill Merrill, principal scientist, dairy applications for DuPont Nutrition & Health, New Century, Kan., suggested that if formulators want to maximize the sweetness already in their products, they might consider working with enzymes.

“The hydrolysis of existing dairy sugar — lactose — brings a big impact on flavor,” Merrill said. “That’s why we see more lactase enzyme use in neutral-pH dairy products like beverages and milk. We’ve found that the sugar that comes from lactose hydrolysis — glucose and galactose — pairs very well with natural sweeteners substitutes to ‘round out’ the sweetness profile.”

The take-home lesson is that a silver bullet solution for reducing added sugars in dairy has yet to be found. And it probably never will be.

“There should always be an exploration of ingredient synergies to deliver the most realistic profile for a given food system while still reducing calories and carbohydrates,” Ashley said. “It goes back to the old reminder that food has to taste good or it may not matter if the other criteria are being met.”  

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