As consumers continue to demand more healthful products, manufacturers are making their sweeteners functional and even natural.

Thanks to the innovation in sweeteners, sugar by any other name can now taste as sweet. But in addition to taste, consumers are demanding safer and more natural products.

Sugar substitutes are able to provide consumers with the low-calorie foods they desire; however, as a result of recent product recalls and contamination, a major concern of consumers has become health and wellness, a Mintel report reveals.

While low/no/reduced calorie remains the No. 1 global claim in the sugar and sweeteners category, the issue of product safety appears to have had an impact, prompting a 17% decline in the claim, compared to the six-month period prior to July 2008 through Dec. 2008. This drop off suggests that consumers are beginning to appreciate natural products over low-calorie products made with artificial sweeteners, Mintel writes.

Consequently, one of nature’s original sweeteners, honey, is getting more attention. Honey is not only an all-natural ingredient used to sweeten products like tea and baked goods. It is also used to sweeten confectionery items.

“In softer-style chocolate confections, honey is extremely useful because it keeps products from exhibiting bloom,” says David Ropa, food technologist with the National Honey Board.

The low pH of honey also allows it to enhance certain flavors it is mixed with, such as citrus, cinnamon and coffee flavors.

In 2008, there were 304 products containing honey with all-natural claims, which is an increase in products containing honey from the previous year, Ropa says. Because of the trend toward organic, natural and healthy confections, Ropa believes there will continue to be a demand for honey in chocolate and candy products.

However, these days, natural also dovetails with functional.

“Many consumers today are looking for great-tasting, sugar-free and/or reduced-sugar products that allow them to enjoy the indulgent sweet treats they love with fewer calories and added sugars,” says Katherine Gage, marketing director, Corn Products Specialty Ingredients.

Most recently, the naturally occurring sweetener stevia has received plenty of attention.

On Dec. 18, 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a no objection letter giving high-purity rebaudioside A Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status at a minimum specification of 95% in food and beverage applications. Reb A, developed and produced by PureCircle, is an all-natural, zero calorie sweetener derived from the Stevia Rebaudiana plant. FDA approval of the sweetener has opened doors to many new product introductions and natural claims.

“Our Reb A supply chain is already the world’s largest and we are making further investment with 50,000 MT of leaf extraction capacity coming online in March 2009 and joint venture partnerships with stevia plantations in Paraguay, Thailand, Laos, China and Kenya,” says Magomet Malsagov, chief executive, PureCircle.

A license agreement gives PureCircle the right to sell high-purity Reb A under thePureVia brand. In 2008, the company announced contract extensions and new contracts with Cargill, Whole Earth Sweetener Co. and PepsiCo, many of which have already announced the launch of new products containing Reb A.

In April 2008, Corn Products International entered into an agreement with Morita Kagaku Kogyo Company Ltd. of Osaka, Japan, to introduceEnliten, a stevia-based, high-intensity sweetener that is low in calories and 300 to 400 times sweeter than sucrose.Enliten is made from a particular strain of the stevia leaf that provides a clean, sweet taste without any licorice flavor, which is commonly found in some other forms of stevia.  Corn Products’ agreement with Morita gives the company the exclusive license to Morita’s patented stevia strain and manufacturing technology.  (To learn more about stevia-based sweeteners, clickCandy Industry Plusat

Enliten is not the only low-calorie sweetener to come from Corn Products.  Three months after the introduction ofEnliten, Corn Products Specialty Ingredients, a division of Corn Products U.S., introducedErysta erythritol to be used by itself or with other polyols (sugar alcohols) and/or sweeteners. Erythritol has been marketed as a natural polyol because of its fermentation process. In addition to reducing calories in food applications,Erysta is 70% as sweet as sucrose.

Corn Products also offers a variety of other low-calorie, sugar-free polyol sweeteners to be used in chewing gum, cream centers, gummy candies, hard candy and other confectionery products.

“Additionally, sweeteners are being combined with other functional ingredients such as fiber to provide their own unique benefits,” Gage says. “We expect this trend to grow over the next several years as consumer interest in functional foods and nutrition continues to develop.”

At the customer’s request, Tate & Lyle has the ability to deliver functional sweeteners by addingPromitor soluble corn fiber with prebiotic benefits. Among its range of sweeteners, the company offers nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners.

“Nutritive sweeteners have four calories per gram,” explains Sanjiv Avashia, senior food scientist, Tate & Lyle. “They are fully digestible and metabolized, versus non-nutritive sweeteners, which can have zero calories.”

A nutritive sweetener, Krystar crystalline fructose has the ability to enhance chocolate, caramel and sweet flavors in confectionery products with high solubility, a low tendency to crystallize and the ability to lower water activity.

One of the most well-known and used sweeteners,Splenda sucralose, is a non-nutritive sweetener offered by the company. Six hundred times sweeter than sucrose,Splenda sucralose contains zero calories and is compatible with nutritive sweeteners. Due to heat and acid stability, it is particularly suited to confections requiring high temperature processing, such as hard candies, toffees and caramels.Splenda sucralose can also be used in chewing gums to provide long lasting sweetness.

O’Laughlin Industries offers another popular polyol commonly known as the tooth-friendly sweetener. Derived from the fibers of many fruits and vegetables, xylitol features approximately the same sweetness as sucrose. It is mainly used in chewing gums and hard candies. 

The company also offers isomaltolin (isomalt), which is a natural sugar substitute featuring the same appearance and texture as sugar.

Although all sweeteners do not carry the all-natural claim, they may still include health benefits.

Maltolin (maltitol), for example, has a similar taste profile to sucrose, is around 90% as sweet as sugar and does not promote tooth decay. It is mainly used in chewing gums and hard candies. Another polyol, mannitol, is hygroscopic, meaning it does not absorb moisture from the air. It is usually used as a dusting powder for chewing gum to prevent the products from sticking to a wrapper or equipment.

With products focusing on benefits, such as digestive health, weight management and oral health, Danisco USA Inc. offers a variety of sweeteners for the confectionery industry.

Litesse polydextrose, a specialty carbohydrate, replaces sugar and fat in confectionery applications while improving flavor, texture and mouth feel.Litesse is also prebiotic for digestive health with a satiating effect to aid in weight management. Because diabetics are still a large consumer of sugar replacements, the sweetener is non-glycemic and metabolized independently of insulin. The sweetener works best when blended with intense sweeteners.

Danisco’s reduced calorie sweetener, Lactitol, as its name suggests, is derived from lactose. It also demonstrates prebiotic effects and has a low glycemic index. Lactitol features a solubility and viscosity similar to sucrose. It is used in no sugar added, reduced sugar and sugar-free applications, such as chocolate and chewing gum.

CenterChem, Inc. offersMaxinvert brand invertase, which is not technically a sweetener, but plays a big role in sweetener production.

“Invertase is an enzyme that breaks the sucrose molecule, creating glucose and fructose,” explains John Dondero, v.p. of CenterChem.“Maxinvert can be used to manufacture liquid invert sugar and other types of sugar syrups.”

Often used in confectionery as a replacement for invert sugar and corn syrups,Maxinvert has the ability to improve mouth feel and moisture retention, prevent sugar crystallization, enhance sweetness and help extend shelf life.Maxinvert is used in truffles, cordial cherries, boxed chocolate creams, peppermint patties, taffy and other chewy candies.

While polyols and sweeteners act as sugar substitutes, Barry Callebaut found a way to use natural dietary fibers to replace and reduce sugar in confections.

“We’ve come up with a technology based on dietary fiber, that allows us to reduce the sugar content of chocolate,” says Rich Benson, director of research and development for North America. “By using [dietary fibers], we replace the sugar that we take out. Then through some selective choices of ingredients and selective processing, we are able to create a chocolate that has a similar flavor profile [to chocolates with the full sugar amount] in terms of sweetness.”

In other words, the company replaces 30-40% of the sugar in chocolate with natural fibers, including cocoa fiber to produce the same texture, melting capabilities and mouth feel as regular chocolate. Milder cocoas that require less sugar are preferred for this process. The end result is a chocolate with two positives: fiber and reduced sugar.

“We find many of our customers are looking for a simple ingredient listing, and these fibers deliver that,” Benson says.

BENEO-Orafti also uses dietary fibers with nutritional and health benefits to sweeten confectionery products.Orafti inulin andOrafti oligofructose are natural food ingredients, known as dietary fibers, with a prebiotic effect.

“In general, inulin is mainly used for its fat replacing and stabilizing properties, whereas the technological characteristics of oligofructose can be compared to those of sugar,” says Tim Van der Schraelen, marketing and communication manager, BENEO-Orafti.

Studies have also found thatOraftiSynergy1, a combination ofOrafti inulin and oligofructose, increases bone mineral density by 45%, increases bone mineral content more than 15% after one year of supplementation and increases dietary calcium uptake by up to 20%, Van der Schraelen says.

Orafti oligofructose has half the calories of sugar and also has the ability to mask off flavors sometimes found with high-intensity sweeteners. Both sweeteners also increase the intensity of fruit flavors in products.

Although sugar by any other name may taste as sweet, consumers are asking for more.

“The food industry has long recognized the opportunity for formulating low-calorie, low-carbohydrate, sugar-free and fat-free foods to address the consumer’s demand for products that can help fight the battle against obesity and numerous diet-related diseases,” Van der Schraelen says. “What is rapidly gaining importance is the keyword ‘natural.’”

Sugar shortfall

With sugar recently settling at around $35.00 per cwt, Steve Hines, director of marketing, United Sugars Corp., explains the reasons why the current sugar supply is tight.

First, high prices for alternative crops such as corn and wheat had diverted beet sugar acres to other crops.

“According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), beet acres planted last spring were down 15.2% from the prior year,” Hines says. “Resulting beet production is expected to be 496,000 short tons, raw value (STRV) less than the prior year.”

Cane production is expected to remain stable. Production would have risen if not for hurricanes Fay, Gustav and Ike.

Second, the explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Savannah, Ga. on Feb. 7, 2008 resulted in the loss of more than 900,000 STRV of refining capacity.

Third, there is a strong U.S. sugar demand thanks to strong exports of sugar-containing products due to the weak dollar earlier in the year and the trend in high fructose corn syrup-to-sugar ingredient conversion.

Last, beginning stocks for 2009 are 143,000 STRV less than beginning stocks last year, Hines says.