Natural sweetener options not so simple

by Jeff Gelski
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Creating products with simple or natural ingredient lists may get complicated when it’s time to choose sweeteners. While formulators have no definition of natural from the Food and Drug Administration to follow, grain-based foods manufacturers have an increasing number of sweeteners promoted as being natural to investigate.

Sugar and honey are options. High-intensity sweeteners from the natural sources of stevia plants and monk fruit have entered the market, too.

More complication may arise when deciding whether high-fructose corn syrup is natural or not in the minds of consumers. The Food and Drug Administration has ruled HFCS is natural when a certain, common extraction process is employed, but Whole Foods Market does not accept foods with HFCS.

Honey’s perception advantage

Natural perception is a plus for honey. According to a Bakery & Consumer Usage Report from the National Honey Board, Firestone, Colo., 96% of consumers feel honey is a natural sweetener, which compares to second-place granulated sugar at 74%. The report said 23% of consumers feel HFCS is natural.

According to a June 6 National Honey Board webinar, honey is 1 to 1.5 times sweeter on a dry weight basis than sugar. It may be used as a primary sweetener in baked foods or to complement flavor to nuts, spices and other sweeteners. Honey may extend shelf life and mask off-flavors in ingredients used in such applications as whole grain products.

Deciding what type of honey to use is not so simple. More than 300 varietals are in the United States, according to the National Honey Board. A lighter color honey, such as clover honey, may have a milder flavor. Dark colored honey, such as buckwheat honey, may have a stronger flavor.

The rise of stevia

Stevia’s use as a natural sweetener has become more prominent this century. It now is allowed for use as an ingredient in foods and beverages in the United States, Canada and the European Union. The International Stevia Council, Brussels, expects approval in 2013 in India, Indonesia and Thailand, said Maria Teresa Scardigli, executive director, in a stevia presentation July 14 in Chicago at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition.

Lu Ann Williams, head of research at Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands, also spoke at the I.F.T. presentation. She said stevia now ranks among the top five non-nutritive sweeteners used in new product launches globally. More than 1,100 new products with stevia already have been launched globally in 2013. A strong link exists between making a natural claim and using stevia,
Ms. Williams said.

As is the case with all high-intensity sweeteners, baked foods probably will need a bulking agent if stevia is used to replace sugar in an application. Erythritol, a polyol, may act as a bulking agent and keep a product’s all-natural claim intact. Suppliers offering both stevia extracts and erythritol include Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, Ill.; Cargill, Minneapolis; Jungbunzlauer, Basel, Switzerland; and Niutang Chemical, which has a U.S. office in Chino, Calif. Jungbunzlauer has a combination erythritol-stevia ingredient called Erylite Stevia.

Stevia no longer may make the claim of being the only all-natural, zero-calorie, high-intensity sweetener. Monk fruit extracts are now on the market.

Koochikoo, L.L.C., Seattle, this year introduced all-natural, sugar-free cookies that feature monk fruit as a natural high-intensity sweetener. The company is working with KeHE Distributors, L.L.C. out of Chicago, said Sally Cox, founder of Koochikoo.

Monk fruit, also known as luo han guo, is about 200 times sweeter than sugar and has 0 calories per serving. It took a year of research and development to figure out the right amount of monk fruit and other ingredients to use in the cookies, Ms. Cox said.

“Monk fruit is a very challenging ingredient to work with,” she said. “It is so much sweeter than sugar.”

The new cookies come in the four varieties of “chocolatey” brownies, “chocolatey” chip cookies, strawberry cookies and oatmeal cookies. The company uses the word “chocolatey” because the definition of chocolate in Food and Drug Administration packaging regulations requires chocolate to contain sugar. The “chocolatey” chips in Koochikoo cookies are made with cocoa and sweetened with stevia plant extracts, but they contain no sugar.

Tate & Lyle, P.L.C., London, offers Purefruit monk fruit extracts. Layn USA, Inc., Newport Beach, Calif., offers Go-Luo, an extract of monk fruit.

The HFCS situation

More consumers became aware of HFCS this century, at least in part because some companies promoted products as being free of the sweetener. Debate has centered on how many consumers are trying to avoid HFCS.

According to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2013 Food & Health Survey, 58% of Americans say they are trying to limit or avoid sugars while 51% say they are trying to limit or avoid HFCS. Forty per cent said they pay no attention to HFCS.

A Mintel Research Consultancy study commissioned by the Washington-based Corn Refiners Association involved the same issue. While percentages varied by brand and food or beverage category, in an unaided portion of the survey the percentages of consumers trying to avoid sugar ranged between 17% and 26% while the percentages of consumers trying to avoid HFCS ranged between 1% and 5%.

The 13-question telephone survey took place in October 2012 and involved 2,400 primary household grocery shoppers. The unaided methodology meant respondents did not have a menu of possible answers.

In the bread category, the unaided percentages overall were 21% for avoiding sugar and 3% for HFCS. The brands included Sara Lee (17% and 1%), Wonder (17% and 0%), Nature’s Own (26% and 5%), Arnold (25% and 3%), Oroweat (22% and 5%) and EarthGrains (25% and 3%).

The C.R.A. is the national trade association representing the U.S. corn refining (wet milling) industry. Aron Levin, Ph.D., a professor at Northern Kentucky University, Newport, Ky., and director of the university’s marketing research partnership program, serves as a spokesperson for the C.R.A. He said Nielsen data generally has failed to show a sales bump for brands that switch to sugar from HFCS as a sweetener in products.

“They’ve been putting their resources in the wrong place,” he said. “Americans seem to be — from all these surveys — they seem to be watching their overall sugar intake.”

The right to call HFCS a natural ingredient gained credence in a letter dated July 3, 2008, from the F.D.A. and addressed to the Corn Refiners Association. The F.D.A. said it would not object to HFCS being called natural if it involved a common extraction process that uses glutaraldehyde, a synthetic fixing agent.

“Because the glutaraldehyde does not come into contact with the high dextrose equivalent corn starch hydrolysate, it would not be considered to be included or added to the HFCS,” the F.D.A. said.

Companies have promoted sweeteners, even sugar, as being more natural than other similar sweeteners because of a less amount of processing.

Zucarmex USA, Rio Rico, Ariz., manufactures Zulka cane sugar through minimal processing. A vacuum evaporation process preserves the natural taste, color and aroma from the sugar cane plant, said Jeff Sowder, national retail sales manager for Zulka. Zulka retains its flavor and sweetness when baked. Zucarmex produces cane sugar from family-owned sugar mills throughout Mexico in growing areas with a tropical climate.

“Zulka’s pure cane sugar is unrefined to preserve the natural properties of the sugar cane plant while retaining a flavor profile that’s as close to fresh sugar cane as possible,” Mr. Sowder said.
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