One of the greatest challenges today in the food industry is how to answer the often conflicting demands of new generation consumers: tasty food without the fat, sugar, carbs, calories, and all the other ‘health-related’ buzzwords. To say that great taste comes from the optimal combination of these naturally occurring dietary components is an understatement and therein lies the conflict.
One of the ways to address this conflict lies in technology. Food technology has advanced up to a point where any type of food can be created and imbued with all the goodness of nature. The American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) concluded in a 2012 scientific statement that non-nutritive sweeteners, when used carefully, may aid in reducing total energy intake and assist with weight loss/control, while providing beneficial effects on related metabolic parameters.
Further, the AHA has suggested that food manufacturers need more innovative low- and no-calorie sweeteners, bulking agents and sweetness enhancers as options to use in food and beverage products.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved sucralose, a non-nutritive sweetener, for use in all foods and beverages in 1999. This built headway for food producers to lower the calories in their food products without compromising the original taste that consumers crave.
Retaining Great Taste
One of the biggest challenges in using non-nutritive sweeteners is the specific formulation necessary in order to retain the original great taste without the accompanying calories. As granular sugar dissolves in food, it adds texture, sweetness and sometimes a lingering burnt caramel feel to the food product.
Artificial sweeteners are sometimes unable to achieve the same level of mouth feel. How to integrate artificial sweeteners becomes a topic of concern for food producers.
In addition, food producers need to consider the bottom-line. As health authorities around the world clamp down more and more on food expiration dates, food producers need to ensure that additives do not alter the shelf-life of their food products.
Purchasing artificial sweeteners is akin to purchasing inventory with a fixed shelf life. They need to ensure good inventory control to prevent stock from expiring, or ensure that the stock they purchase has a long enough shelf-life to be held on-hand.
To add an extra differentiating factor to their products, some food producers have chosen to go the ‘natural’ path, using sweeteners derived from stevia as an alternative to sucralose.
The benefit of stevia over sucralose is the sweetness potency—stevia is 200 to 300 times more potent than sugar. However, the downside of stevia-derived sweeteners is the bitter aftertaste that sometimes lingers. This is something that additive producers have had to contend with when developing stevia-based sweeteners.
From the operations perspective, the cost of incorporating these additives has to be reasonable. Although consumers may be willing to pay a little more for a healthier option, the marginal returns may not be high enough to justify capital investment of expensive machinery for the mixing, pressing or other processes necessary to incorporate these additives. The additive needs to be easily incorporated into the existing product.
Once these four issues—creating the same mouth feel, shelf-life and expiration dates, whether or not to use plant-derived sweeteners and the possible ways of incorporating the sweetener—have been considered, food producers can then start thinking of how to apply these sweeteners to their products, and which products would benefit the most from the use of these sweeteners.
One of the most overlooked food items consumed today are sauces. While consumers pay attention to the type of food they consume: salads over burgers, air-fried chips versus oil-fried chips, they sometimes forget that the condiments they put on their food may deride the benefits of having picked the ‘healthier alternative’ in the first place.
Success Ketchup Story
An example of this is tomato ketchup, one of the most widely consumed condiments today.
In formulating tomato ketchup, the key challenge is how to retain the proprietary taste that keeps customers coming back for more instead of turning to a competitor brand of ketchup.
This ‘proprietary taste’ could come from the texture of the ketchup, how well it adheres to a French fry, how easily it flows form the bottle, and most of all, the taste of the ketchup.
Successful stories of additive use in tomato ketchup have emerged, with the tool used in its incorporation being the Thermomix, instead of expensive, customised, industrial equipment. (The trials were done in lab scale basis; the equipment is required to cook the sauce with enough heat and shear. In real production, a batch cooker is normally used.)
This success has further been propagated in the banana ketchup application. Banana ketchup is a local condiment popular in the Philippines. This application shows how well artificial sweetener formulations have been able to cater to different taste profiles, rather than just mainstream products.
Pasta Sauce Challenge
Pink Sherbet Photography, New England, US
Another challenge is in tomato-based pasta sauce. Being based off of tomatoes, tomato-based pasta sauces need to retain the acidity of the tomato, together with its sweetness and the tanginess of other herbs.
How well the sauce reacts to heat, how well it adheres to pasta, and how well it blends with other ingredients like mushrooms and fresh herbs are important characteristics that differentiate one brand of pasta sauce from another.
When switching out sugar for non-nutritive additives to achieve the ’50 percent less sugar claim’, the stability of the sweetener over a range of temperatures need to be taken into account, in addition to the texture, taste and mouth feel, common characteristics that a food producer considers.
Pasta sauce with 50 percent less sugar is another artificial sweetener success story that consumers are able to enjoy today.
Sucralose and stevia-based sweeteners are recommended for a variety of applications, ranging from sauces to dairy products. One of the applications of sucralose today is in stirred yoghurt.
Due to the increased stability and solubility of sucralose, it has been used for enhancing the taste profile of low fat, low sugar stirred yoghurt. The sweetener was so well integrated into the yoghurt that the yoghurt received excellent feedback on the taste profile and texture.
The application of sucralose can be further extended to sugar-free, textured drinks, such as the oat breakfast drink. A drink popular with today’s on-the-go consumers, the key to oat drinks lies in the taste and mouth feel of oat, its solubility in water, and its performance as a meal substitute for the busy professionals.
Using homogenisers and the batch process (in production plants, a UHT is normally used), there have been success stories of sugar-free, reduced-calorie drinks made with artificial sweeteners, even dairy-based drinks.
There undoubtedly exist many more opportunities for the use of sweeteners in food that consumers partake of on a daily basis. Consumers of today do not want to sacrifice great taste for lower calories, and non-nutritive sweeteners, formulated to complement the existing product, appear to be the way forward for the food industry.
As the obesity problem becomes more serious, there will be more consumers looking for a solution to food that is lower in calories, yet retains the same great taste. It is the opportune time for food producers to start looking into how non-nutritive sweeteners can play a role to help them achieve the low-fat, low-sugar edge in the increasingly calorie-conscious consumer market.
As consumers start to learn more about studies that debunk the common idea that artificial sweeteners are bad for health and start believing in the advantages that non-nutritive sweeteners bring, the market for low-sugar, low-fat products enhanced with non-nutritive sweeteners will grow. There is no better time to start exploring the applications of non-nutritive sweeteners than now.