Food, beverage sweeteners

With more than half of Australians overweight or obese, Rita Mu takes a look at how the food and beverage industries are providing no- and low-calorie options by substituting sugar for natural and artificial sweeteners.

Sugar offers multiple benefits in foods and beverages; it adds flavour and texture and is packed full of energy, however, why are more consumers starting to reach for foods and drinks that no longer contain sugar as an ingredient?

Sucrose – made from sugar cane and sugar beet – is one of the most common sugars found in food and beverage production. Others include lactose (such as in milk) and fructose (such as in fruits). However, one of the major disadvantages of using these sugars is the high-calorie factor.

The use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in food and beverages was causing an uproar in the US, with critics claiming that the syrup, used in as much as 40 per cent of caloric sweeteners in the US, was contributing to the nation’s obesity epidemic. According to the US Centre for Disease Control, a third of Americans are obese.

While the most commonly used HFCS in the US is made up of 55 per cent fructose and 45 per cent glucose, the fructose content can range up to 90 per cent.

A study published this year in the scientific journal Appetite, led by Princeton University and Rockefeller University in the US, found rats that had access to HFCS, gained up to 257 per cent of their baseline weight in a six month period. That’s a lot of waistline. With such results in mind, some critics are blaming the excessive consumption of HFCS as a major contributor to the incidence of obesity in the US.

In September, the Corn Refiners Association petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration to allow food and beverage manufacturers to label high fructose corn syrup as ‘corn sugar,’ saying in a statement that "independent research demonstrates that the current labelling is confusing to American consumers," and that the term, ‘corn sugar,’ was a "succinct" and "accurate" description for the syrup.

With many of us eating more and exercising less, consuming too much sugar can become a real health concern (see ‘A fat nation’). According to Business Development Manager Sian Billington at Sugar Australia, it’s this kind of consumer thinking that has driven the food and beverage industries to deliver healthier options that are low-calorie or calorie free.

"Manufacturers are concerned about obesity and diabetes and looking at ways to make better health products," Ms Billington told Food. "If you have a look at the products that have been launched [recently], they are wellness products such as Vitamin Waters."

The sweeter option

Among the many natural and artificial sweeteners available in the food and beverage industries, a few stand out for their low-caloric or non-caloric properties.

Some of the more common artificial sweeteners available on the market include aspartame, sucralose and sacharrin.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is currently reviewing the artificial sweetener advantame for use in table top sweeteners and beverages. Advantame, manufactured by Japanese company Ajinomoto, is approximately 100 times sweeter than aspartame and 20,000 times sweeter than sucrose.

According to FSANZ, a second public consultation on the use of Advantame as a sweetener will be held between February and March 2011.

"FSANZ expects to complete the Final Assessment by June 2011," a FSANZ spokesperson told Food.

"Following that it will be considered by the Ministerial Council who will be the ultimate deciders on approval."

According to Ms Billington, a combination of sweeteners is often used in food and beverage production.

"Different sweeteners have distinct flavour characteristics, sweetening profiles and functional properties that are different to sugar," a spokesperson from Sugar Australia said.

"What manufacturers tend to do is use a combination of sweeteners to get the sweetening and flavour profile they require as well as correct stability in their products."

Natural sweeteners currently popular in the market are steviol glycosides; extracts from the leaves of the South American plant Stevia rebaudiana. Steviol glycosides are estimated to be 250 to 300 times sweeter than sucrose sugar. Stevioside and Rebaudioside A are the main glycosides of interest for their sweetening properties.

The use of crude stevia or whole-leaf stevia as sweeteners in food and beverage production is banned in Australia, the European Union and the US.

FSANZ approved the use of steviol glycosides (with a minimum of 95 per cent purity) as sweeteners in food and beverage products in 2008. Other nations who have approved steviol glycosides include Japan, Korea, Russia and Brazil. The European Union – excluding France – has yet to approve the sweeteners.

Rebaudioside A has been classified as Generally Recognised As Safe (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Food and beverage giants currently using steviol glycoside sweeteners in their products include The Coca Cola Company, PepsiCo and Swiss chocolate company Barry Callebaut. Major suppliers of the sweeteners include Cargill, Merisant and Sunwin International Neutraceuticals.

Merisant, most commonly known for their artificial table top sweetener Equal, launched their natural sweetener brand in Australia in October this year. Equal Stevia is comprised of 14 per cent of steviol glycosides.

According to Asia Pacific General Manager Rachel Aldridge of Merisant, there is a new market for natural sweeteners.

"Some people are fine with artificial sweeteners, but there are a lot of people who would prefer a natural offering," she said.

"Equal Stevia are the people who are after low-calorie, but had not been consuming it a lot because they preferred a natural version than an artificial version."

The search for other avenues

While some food and beverage manufactures wait for approval of the use of certain sweeteners, this has not stopped them from reaching their markets of interest.

For example, in an effort to reach the weight-conscious European market, Cargill launched a reduced-calorie chocolate made from its zero-calorie Zerose erythritol sweetener. Unlike the company’s Rebaudioside A based TRUVIA sweetener, Zerose erythritol has been approved by the European Union for use in food production. According to Cargill, its new reduced-calorie chocolate is 30 per cent less calories than other chocolates on the market.

While the Ajinomoto Company awaits approval of advantame in Australia and New Zealand, it has been busy helping major cereal manufacturer, the Kellogg Company, develop products that "deliver benefits in the areas of weight management" with the natural non-caloric sweetener monatin. According to Ajinomoto, monatin is 2,000 times sweeter than sucrose.

With the increase in popularity and development of new sweeteners – will sugar become an endangered ingredient in food and beverage production?

According to Ms Billington, it’s unlikely. Sugar still offers major benefits for food and beverage manufacturers.

"Sweeteners have their place, but the cost of some sweeteners is reasonably high," Ms Billington said. "Sugar, traditionally, has been a cost-effective sweetening and bulking agent."

I know for some old-fashioned food makers such as my grandmother, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without a few spoonfuls of sugar.

A fat nation

While the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Health Survey shows 61 per cent of Australians are overweight or obese, the rest of the world is no slimmer.

According to the latest projections on global obesity by the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately 1.6 billion adults are overweight and at least 400 million are obese. The WHO projects that by 2015, the figures will grow to 2.3 billion and 700 million respectively.

With more and more people tipping on the ‘heavy side’ of the scales, the rates of cardiovascular diseases and Type 2 diabetes are also increasing.

According to Diabetes Australia, diabetes is Australia’s fastest growing chronic disease. Type 2 Diabetes, caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors, is increased in people who are overweight or obese. It is the most common form of diabetes, affecting up to 90 per cent of all people with diabetes.

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