Pure and Simple

“Pure and simple,” which implies being “natural,” is something many of today’s consumers are demanding from their foods and beverages.

According to the American Grocery Shopper Study released in January by BrandSpark International, New York, more than half (58%) of the 51,295 U.S. shoppers surveyed consider it important for a new product they purchase to be natural. Further, 68% of respondents expressed increased concern about chemicals in food products.

Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD), Chicago, reports that natural claims appeared on nearly one in four (23%) food and drink launches in 2008, a 9% increase from 2007. “With economic struggles driving people toward a simpler way of life, we expect that food and drink manufacturers will continue to prize natural, wholesome benefits well into 2009,” says Lynn Dornblaser, leading new product expert at Mintel.

Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream Holdings Inc., Oakland, Calif., validates this trend with the introduction of Häagen-Dazs Five, which is all about ice cream the way Mother Nature intended. This line of all-natural ice cream is made with just five ingredients. All are made with milk, cream, sugar, eggs and one of the following ingredients to create these seven single-note flavors: brown sugar, coffee, ginger, milk chocolate, mint, passionfruit and vanilla bean.

That’s right, Five’s only directly added sweetener is sugar. As about as simple as a sweetener can get, sugar is making its way back onto the public’s list of trusted ingredients, as a result of other sweeteners being scrutinized by the food police.

The problem for many formulators is that sugar alone keeps calories high, and many dairy foods product developers are trying to reduce calorie contents. Indeed, as the public health crisis burgeons with more than 20 million diabetics and 60 million obese adults in the United States, food formulators are demanding more lower-calorie sweeteners.

Replacing all-natural sugar

The most common approach is by partial or complete replacement of sugar or other carbohydrate sweetener with a combination of high-intensity sweeteners, polyols and other lower-calorie sweetening agents, including ingredients described as enhancers, herbs and plant extracts. Unfortunately, some of these ingredients are not considered natural, and again, data indicates that claim has become increasingly important to many consumers.

There is a growing trend to identify alternatives to synthetic sweeteners, which is being furled by natural product retailers such as Whole Foods. The issues often come down to cost, functionality compared to synthetic and regulatory status.

The good news is that chemists continue to learn more about sweetening ingredients. This know-how - as well as a recent generally recognized as safe (GRAS) recognition by FDA for Rebaudioside A (Reb A) - provides dairy food formulators more sweetening resources from which to formulate.

For starters, many are relying on the addition of some - never all - fructose, which happens to be the sweetest of all naturally occurring carbohydrates. In fact, fructose is 1.7 times sweeter than sugar. Fructose has been shown to exhibit a sweetness synergy effect when used in combination with other sweeteners with the relative sweetness of the blended sweeteners perceived as being greater than the sweetness calculated from individual components.

Relative sweetness of fructose in any dairy foods application depends on various processing and formulation conditions, including temperature, solids, pH and the presence of other ingredients. Fructose also contributes solids, which often are required when caloric-carbohydrate sweeteners such as sugar are replaced solely by high-intensity sweeteners. Depending on the application, the solids that come from fructose can reduce the solids required from other sources.

Options a-plenty

There are numerous other natural sugar alternatives being embraced by formulators. Some provide bulk in addition to reduced-calorie sweetness. Usage varies by application, with many working best in synergy with other sweeteners.

For example, tagatose has a physical bulk similar to sugar and is 92% as sweet without any aftertaste. In addition, it has been shown to have a synergistic flavor-enhancing effect in combination with other sweeteners. It only contributes 1.5 calories per gram, since only 15% to 20% of tagatose is absorbed in the small intestine. The major part of ingested tagatose is fermented in the colon by indigenous microflora; thus, it provides a prebiotic effect.

Tagatose is made via a patented procedure from lactose (milk sugar) in a two-step process. In the first step, lactose is hydrolyzed to glucose and galactose. In the second step, galactose is isomerized to D-tagatose by adding calcium hydroxide. D-tagatose is then further purified by means of demineralization and chromatography. The final product is a white crystalline substance that is greater than 99% pure.

To date, GNPD does not indicate there have been any new dairy foods introduced with tagatose; however, both frozen desserts and yogurt are potential applications.

The natural sweetener isolmaltulose is found in honey and sugar cane molasses as a disaccharide consisting of glucose and fructose. Commercially it is typically produced from beet sugar that has undergone a natural enzymatic rearrangement of the glucose-fructose bond. It is about half as sweet as sucrose while exhibiting the same balanced and natural taste profile, yet is non-cariogenic. Further, it is not lower-calorie, as it delivers 4 calories per gram just like sugar, but it does provide a host of functional benefits that many dairy processors are looking to offer in their products.

For example, isomaltulose is best known as being a low-glycemic carbohydrate that provides sustained energy in the form of glucose. It does this by being hydrolyzed and absorbed four to five times more slowly than sucrose, thanks to the strong binding of its glucose and fructose component. Thus, it has little effect on blood glucose levels, which has been shown to help avoid sugar rushes followed by hunger pangs. Isolmaltulose has also been shown to promote fat oxidation by increasing the use of body fat and fatty acids as energy sources.

Isomaltulose is resistant to microbial fermentation, making it attractive for use in dairy beverages. About a year ago, Japan’s Yakult introduced Bifia, a low-calorie, high-fiber fermented dairy shot-style beverage containing isomaltulose. Each 100-milliliter shot contains only 40 calories. A similar product was launched by Germany’s Dr. Oetker. New Dr. Oetker Vitalis Yofibra Probiotic Dairy Drink comes in portion-controlled 135-gram bottles, with each serving delivering 8.4 grams of fiber.

Polyols are also very helpful in lowering calories. Sometimes referred to as sugar alcohols because of their molecular configuration - part sugar and part alcohol - these nutritive alternative sweeteners are incompletely absorbed and metabolized by the body and consequently contribute fewer calories than sugars. However, not all are considered natural.

The natural polyol most often used in dairy foods is erythritol, which is about 70% as sweet as sugar and contains only 0.2 calories per gram. Erythritol is rapidly absorbed in the small intestine and eliminated by the body within 24 hours; thus, the laxative side effects sometimes associated with excessive polyol consumption are unlikely when consuming erythritol-containing foods. Because of its reduced sweetness, as compared to sugar, erythritol is often used in combination with other sweeteners.

From the earth

Likely the biggest news in the area of natural alternative sweeteners came this December when FDA issued a no objection letter to GRAS status for Reb-A. This purified component of Stevia rebaudiana, an herb in the chrysanthemum family that grows wild as a small shrub in South America, exerts varying degrees of sweetness. Reb A is said to be the sweetest, purest part of the stevia leaf. It is non-caloric and about 200 times sweeter than sugar.

Reb-A is pH stable and does not ferment, making it ideal for sweetening yogurt and frozen desserts. It can directly replace all the sugar in a product formulation, or, when used as a partial replacement, works synergistically with sugar.

Another herb-derived natural sweetener comes from the Asian fruit luo han guo, which is harvested from the Momordica grosvenori plant. Mogrosides are the source of intense sweetness in the fruit. Considered a natural food ingredient in the United States, luo han guo extracts can be about 300 times sweetener than sugar and contribute zero calories. 

Thaumatin is a low-calorie flavor modifier (for which it’s GRAS-approved in the States), which is a natural protein extracted from the West African katemfe fruit, Thaumatococcus daniellii. The ingredient is about 3,000 times as sweet as sucrose.

Finally, the most common plant-derived alternative sweetener currently being used in U.S. dairy foods is agave syrup, also sometimes called agave nectar, which is produced using wild food agave plants mostly grown in Mexico. Agave syrup contains 2.9 calories per gram and is low-glycemic. Due to its 70% fructose level, agave syrup provides a high level of sweetening with fewer calories than sucrose.

At the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco this past January, Agave Dream, La Canada, Calif., introduced the only superpremium line of all-natural frozen dairy dessert made without added sugar. The product, appropriately named Agave Dream, is made using agave syrup. “After we pasteurize the milk for our ice creams, we add agave nectar and thus protect the powerful enzymes at the heart of this special ingredient,” says Jean Zwarg, co-founder of Agave Dream. “Agave nectar also happens to be a staple in many cultures, and complements our philosophy about maintaining a safe and rewarding lifestyle.”

Pure, simple, natural sweeteners, it’s time to embrace them and formulate the way Mother Nature intended.