While the case against fat consumption seems to mount, the reputation of sugar is being restored. A study published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine even maintains that sugar does not affect the behavior of our children. Does this mean the end for all those sweeteners that come in colored packets and have unpronounceable names? No way.
From candy to cookies to new-age beverages, the interest in alternatives to sugar continues to increase. A 1993 Calorie Control Council survey revealed that 58% of all respondents used sugar-free foods last year. That doesn't take into account usage of alternative sugars such as corn syrup and fructose. And if the present set of available sweeteners doesn't suit, several others are waiting in the wings. The field is getting so crowded, it's hard to remember all the players, or why they are all out there.
One thing adding to the confusion is that, although many sweeteners are marketed actively in the United States, many are still awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval for use in food. A number of these products are beginning to make inroads in the American market or are poised to enter it after enjoying considerable success in other countries.
But there is more to replacing sugar than merely finding something that gives a product a sweet taste. Sugar gives products texture, appearance, mouth-feel, structure and other characteristics. There are regulatory considerations, stability concerns and marketing benefits -- from calories to cost -- to consider. Some sweeteners contribute distinct flavors, others enhance certain flavors and some provide synergies with other sweeteners. Because sugar acts as a functional ingredient, the systems approach is often the best one. Even if a single ingredient seems to work, it may be that a blend of sweeteners or the addition of functional ingredients optimizes the required properties.
Specific characteristics, such as sugar crystallization, that provide functionality are difficult to replicate. With sugar-free products, the system has to function like sugar without regard to calories. With reduced-calorie products, the sugar replacement system must function the same while contributing significantly less than 4 calories per gram. As with fat, the lower the moisture, the more difficult it is to develop an acceptable product. There is a dearth of low-calorie functional ingredients to fit these products. This accounts for the scarcity of successful products in categories such as confections and low-moisture cookies. While beverage products are somewhat immune to changes resulting from the substitution of the more common sweetening agents, they still may require additional ingredients to provide mouth-feel or improve stability.
FDA considers sucrose (cane and beet sugar), corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose and fructose as sugars under the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act. However, crystalline fructose often is used as an alternative to sugar or corn sweeteners by virtue of its reputation as a naturally occurring fruit sugar. Because consumers perceive this as "natural" or "better than sugar," sales of this ingredient have skyrocketed in the last several years.
With 4 calories per gram, fructose is not the best candidate for low-sugar products. It is almost 20% sweeter than sugar, so pound for pound, less is required for the same sweetness intensity. It could contribute to a calorie-reduction strategy, having a modest impact on calorie content when combined with a no-calorie or low-calorie filler such as water or polydextrose. A better approach would be to use it in combination with a high-intensity sweetener.
The sweetness perception of fructose differs from sugar, peaking much earlier and delivering a cleaner flavor. This complements certain flavors, especially fruit. It also acts as a humectant, holding on to moisture. That may work as an advantage for a moist, chewy product like a gummy bear or a soft cookie. It may cause problems when added to a beverage mix.
A class of sweeteners receiving considerable attention is known as polyols, or sugar alcohol. Specific compounds include isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, maltitol syrup (Lycasin), mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol. FDA does not consider these to be sugars, so they may be used in sugar-free products. While in Europe they are considered to contribute 2.4 calories per gram, FDA calls them carbohydrates and confers 4 calories per gram on them. In the United States, only sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol are permitted and high levels must bear a statement warning of a laxative effect. Most of the approvals for high levels fall in the confectionery and gum area.
These sweeteners have widely ranging properties. Their sweetness levels vary from 30% that of sugar (lacticol) to one equivalent to sugar (xylitol). The sweeteners approved have a pronounced cooling effect that enhances mint.
Xylitol is generating some interest as an ingredient that promotes dental health. According to Kenneth Sandstrom, director of marketing at American Xyrofin Inc., studies have shown that xylitol reduces the formation of dental caries and reduces plaque formation.
"Although we can make certain claims outside the United States -- in Scandinavia and Canada, for example, xylitol is endorsed by the dental associations -- the FDA does not allow any label health claims," he said.
Another group of sweeteners just being introduced to the American market are called fructo-oligosaccharides, or FOS. These have been sold in Europe and Japan for a number of years and include products such as inulin, Neosugar and Nutraflora. Jerusalem artichoke flour contains about 80% FOS and is considered a food by FDA.
The sweetness level of these products ranges from 20% to 60%. Although the manufacturers claim calorie contents of 1.6 to 2.5 calories per gram, this has not been recognized by FDA yet.
The high-intensity sweetener category has seen a great deal of activity lately. NutraSweet's patent on aspartame ran out in 1992 and Holland Sweetener Co. stepped in. With this competition, NutraSweet lowered prices to be at parity with Holland, and is currently focusing on its brand equity and technical expertise as a point of difference.
"Consumers are comfortable with the name NutraSweet. They don't always recognize the generic name," says John Lewis, vice president of marketing at NutraSweet Co. "From the business-to-business standpoint, our customers understand the logo is important, but we need more than that to earn their business. There's a lot of service that comes with the logo -- marketing, sales, technical and regulatory."
As if head-to-head competition wasn't enough to put NutraSweet on its toes, it now faces increasing competition from other high-intensity sweeteners, especially after Pepsi's revelation that Diet Pepsi will now carry freshness dating. Saccharine, formerly aspartame's only rival in the United States, never gained widespread acceptance because of a bitter aftertaste and unresolved questions about its safety.
Acesulfame-K, discovered and marketed by Hoechst Celanese under the Sunette name, has been approved in six different categories, including dry bases for beverages and desserts and beating aspartame to approval for confections and gums. Acesulfame-K has about 200 times the sweetening power of sugar, comparable to aspartame, but exhibits stability to heat over wide pH ranges and is synergistic with other sweeteners. "By establishing a freshness dating policy, Pepsi-Cola Co. has reinforced the food and beverage industry's need for an alternative to aspartame that can deliver consistent product quality," says Dr. Gary Miller, vice president of research and development at McNeil Specialty Products Co., manufacturer of sucralose, a high-intensity sweetener awaiting FDA approval.
"Aspartame does not maintain its sweetness over time in liquids or at high temperatures. In a cola, a noticeable loss of sweetness can occur within 30 days: even faster under typical summer-weather conditions."
"Using acesulfame-K in a blend often results in a sweetness profile closer to sucrose than any single sweetener and also enables manufactures to use less total sweetener, an economic benefit," explains Anne Giordano, Hoechst's senior public relation's coordinator.
NutraSweet does not promote blending. Indeed, if sweetener blends are used, the company has indicated it will no longer allow the use of the NutraSweet logo on products. But the biggest challenge to NutraSweet is yet to come. Hoechst has submitted a petition for the use of acesulfame-K in liquid beverages and is quick to point out its success in European soft drinks such as Pepsi-Max.
In addition to Hoechst's acesulfame-K, two other high-intensity sweeteners are poised to enter the U.S. market pending FDA approval: McNeil's sucralose, marketed under the Splenda brand name, and Alitame, developed and marketed by Pfizer Inc.
Sucralose, approved for use in Canada and Australia, is positioned as the only low-calorie sweetener derived from sugar. With a sweetness level 600 times greater than sugar and long-term and high-heat stability, there are currently more than 120 sucralose products on the Canadian market, including some names that are familiar to the American consumer, such as Diet Crush and Trident sugarless gum (cinnamon and cherry).
Alitame has a sweetness level 2,000 times that of sugar. It was approved in Australia in December 1993 and in Mexico in May 1994. Commercial products in these countries are under development, but have not yet reached the market, according to Pfizer's director of communications and industry affairs, John Vernados.
Other alternative sweeteners enjoy limited usage for various reasons, whether driven by regulations, functionality or cost. Research still continues to isolate and synthesize promising compounds in hopes that the search will be rewarded.