Humans are naturally inclined to foods and beverages that have a sweet taste. Scientists believe this is an evolutionary advantage from our ancestors, since non-toxic foods tended to be sweet. It thus is no surprise that sugar-sweetened beverages are one of the largest contributors to consumers’ sugar intakes today.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends sugar consumption to be limited to less than 10 percent of their total energy intake or about 50 g a day, and this level of sugar intake can easily be reached by drinking a single can of soda. However, a study in 2011 found that on any given day, half the people in the US consume sugary drinks, of which one of four consumes at least 200 calories; five percent consume at least 567 calories (equivalent to four cans of soda).
Research today has explored possible links between soft drinks (or sugar consumption) with weight and other health problems, and findings consistently show that increased consumption of sugar is associated with increased energy (caloric) intake. This in turn leads to various health complications such as tooth decay, obesity, or even type II diabetes—all of which will place a greater pressure on healthcare systems.
To reduce this burden, more governments are attempting to encourage populations to consume fewer sugar-sweetened beverages. Several countries in the Asia-Pacific region have already started to consider legislations to help curb the intake of sugary drinks.
For example, in the Philippines a Bill has been introduced to charge a 10 percent tax on sweetened drinks and there are calls for Vietnam to do the same. In Thailand, sweet drinks could cost 20 to 25 percent more in the near future as a proposal to increase taxes on non-alcoholic drinks with high sugar content is pending endorsement by the cabinet.
This was already approved 153 votes to two by the National Reform Steering Assembly’s health panel.
Combined with a greater sense of health awareness among consumers, this puts great pressure on beverage manufacturers to lower the sugar levels in their products, or offer a wider variety of reduced sugar options.
High Intensity Sweeteners—The Solution To Reducing Sugar?
According to a Nielsen report on ingredient and dining trends that was published in August 2016, retail sales data shows that although consumers are cutting back on foods high in fat and sugar, there is still room for the occasional sweet treat. This indicates that consumers would opt to give in to their sweet beverage cravings by indulging smarter—i.e. choosing beverages with reduced calories or sugar content, but which still offer the sweet sensations they are craving.
In order to achieve this, manufacturers commonly use high intensity sweeteners (HIS) so that the products can have a reduced/zero sugar claim. Currently, a large majority of beverage manufacturers use artificial HIS such as acesulfame-K, aspartame, cyclamate, saccharin and sucralose in their formulations.
The reason why manufacturers use HIS is because they have few to zero calories and have higher relative sweetness compared to sugar. This means that HIS can be used in small amounts and still achieve the same sweetness intensity of sucrose.
The Demand For More Natural
However, the same report also indicates that consumers are avoiding artificial ingredients—including artificial sweeteners—because they are becoming increasingly concerned with the long-term health impact that these ingredients may have.
Together with the occurrence of food scandals and recalls, the fear of chemical and unfamiliar looking ingredients is growing. More consumers today believe that the absence of undesirable ingredients is more important than the inclusion of beneficial ones.
This serves as a major contributing factor to the growing demand for more natural ingredients in beverages, which has spurred manufacturers to look for alternatives to artificial HIS that can help them to meet this consumer need.
One option to consider is the use of alternative naturallybased sweeteners, such as coconut sugar, blackstrap molasses, date sugar, etc. However, these are limited in scope and manufacturers may face challenges in managing costs while using them, making them less economically viable for beverage manufacturers.
Consistency of supply and quality are also current concerns, as they may come from different origins, which would possibly impact the taste and flavour profiles of the final product, especially at scale. Their physicochemical characteristics such as differing viscosities, bulk densities, and browning effects still have to be properly studied. Insufficient data is available at present, making the use of alternative natural sweeteners in new product development a risky endeavour.
For these reasons, HIS often remains as the best option for manufacturers. While most are artificial, stevia is recently gaining more attention as a naturally-based HIS.
Stevia can help to meet the needs of manufacturers to achieve both reduced sugar and more natural claims. It is a clean label, sustainable sweetener, and has a natural traceability which is becoming increasingly important to today’s consumer. To tap into this positioning, some key industry players have already launched carbonated soft drink products that are sweetened with stevia.
Originating from South America, the leaves of the stevia plant were first used by indigenous people from as far back as 200 years ago to sweeten beverages or food. Japan was the first country to commercially adopt stevia as a mainstream sweetener in the 1970s, and with the growing consumer demand for natural yet healthier products, stevia presents an ideal solution.
Stevia actually represents a complex group of sweeteners based on the hundreds of varieties of the stevia rebaudiana bertoni plant that have evolved over time, with each containing different distributions of steviol glycoside within its leaves. This component has different intensities of sweetness and bitterness.
The term ‘stevia’ can actually refer to stevia leaves or stevia extracts, and ‘stevia extracts’ can refer to extracts high in steviol glycosides, or extracts high in stevioside and rebaudioside A (RebA) or extracts high in RebA. RebA as an extract provides a cleaner sweetness with less bitterness and liquorice taste than that associated with other stevia products. It is also very stable under most temperature and pH conditions.
Batch-to-batch consistency of the extract plays an important role in ensuring the extended quality of the finished beverage. To control this, manufacturers are encouraged to manage the production of their own sweetener range from the farm through to the final extract. This allows a secure supply chain, and consistency in quality and taste.
Making Naturally-Based Sweeteners Work For You
Depending on the formulation, manufacturers can use stevia for its benefits as a natural-based sweetener, or combine it with other sweeteners or flavours to modify the overall sweetness profile and other physicochemical characteristics. However, applying stevia to the end product is not without its challenges, particularly when trying to achieve the desired taste and texture targets.
For successful product reformulation, an in-depth understanding of how consumers perceive the subtle differences in sweetness types is key. This can be done through using a mix of data, experience and process knowledge that follows a structured process to rapidly achieve the right product formulation, taste and texture—while also keeping in mind meeting calorie, label and cost goals.
The Dial-In technology by Ingredion, for instance, is one such consumer-centric approach that takes manufacturers through a process that starts with understanding how consumers perceive the subtle differences in sweetness types.
For example, the sweetness in caramel candy differs from that found in cotton candy, and being able to make sense of consumer sensory feedback and convert them into measureable scientific terms unlocks the ability to accurately recreate the flavour that would need to be replaced when reformulating with required natural sweeteners.
Using this information, manufacturers can then ensure that their reduced sugar products offer the taste and quality that consumers crave, without compromising cost targets, or processing parameters and flow.
The Nature-Based Sweetener Of Choice
Consumers today are more cautious with their product choices, and using fewer artificial ingredients in your formulations will help your final product be more attractive. Replacing sugar with naturally-based sweeteners, such as stevia, addresses this consumer trend, and still allows them to enjoy the sweetness that they love without being overly concerned about the calories they might gain from the product.
Stevia is gaining ground as the naturally-based sweetener of choice, but the right expertise is necessary to adjust and recreate the same taste and texture that sucrose provides.