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04/01/2011

Sweetener Showdown

Health concerns are sparking a switch to natural options in the alternative sweetener segment.

A spoonful of sugar might help "the medicine go down," but when it comes to sweetening their food and drinks, many of today's consumers are looking for alternatives to sucrose (table sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

In its December 2010 "Sugar and Sweeteners — US" report, global market research firm Mintel International notes that the rising rate of obesity and related illnesses such as cancer and diabetes have some U.S. consumers slashing consumption of the sweet stuff. The negative press surrounding HFCS, meanwhile, has hurt sales of non-HFCS syrup products, too, because "natural syrup offerings have been slow to distinguish themselves from HFCS."

Product developers and consumers often find it difficult, however, to sort though and understand the growing array of alternatives to table sugar and HFCS. Retailers really need to gain a strong understanding of the pros and cons of each alternative before developing new store brand tabletop sweeteners or finished products containing alternative sweeteners.

Natural's appeal

According to the Mintel report, natural sweeteners boast the greatest appeal to today's consumers and "should be the focus of development for manufacturers." Of these, honey has the greatest health association. And natural low-calorie sugar substitutes such as xylitol and those derived from the stevia plant (high-purity Rebaudioside-A, or Reb-A) are really gaining traction among consumers.

"Many consumers prefer the taste and origin of a natural sweetener" over an artificial sweetener, says Ann Tucker, director of marketing and communications, Truvia brand, for Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc.

Craig Coulon, director, corporate brand sales for Carmel, Ind.-based Heartland Sweeteners, says his company believes the natural category will continue to grow.

"Many retailers are starting to look at alternative sweeteners to HFCS and aspartame for their store [brand] ingredients, especially as economies of scale bring the costs down and increasing obesity and diabetes [rates] in the U.S. drive interest in lower-calorie products," he says.

Stevia soars

Stevia is the star of the natural sweetener pack right now. Jason Hecker, vice president of global marketing at Oakbrook, Ill.-based PureCircle, notes that 200 products containing stevia were introduced into the marketplace in 2010. He says PureCircle now offers a variety of stevia ingredients to fit a wide range of applications and marketing claims.

For his part, Peter Sokoloski, private label manager for NOW Foods, Bloomingdale, Ill., believes stevia represents the best of today's alternative sweetener options.

"It's natural, a hundred times sweeter than sugar, and it has no impact on blood sugar levels," he says. "As a raw material, it can be used for a wide variety of foods and beverages, both hot and cold."

NOW Foods offers a naturally enzyme-treated organic stevia extract, Sokoloski adds. It reduces the bitter aftertaste found in some other stevia sweeteners, eliminating the need for natural flavors and/ or sugar alcohols as masking agents.

Benjamin Fleischer, CEO and founder of Naples, Fla.-based Pyure Brands LLC, notes that the applications for stevia-based sweeteners are "almost endless." His company provides both tabletop and ingredient options — including an organic stevia-based sweetener — controlling the raw material from start to finish.

Cargill's high-purity Truvia brand stevia product (rebiana) is 200 times sweeter than sugar and continues to attract consumer interest, Tucker notes. The company keeps a very close eye on food safety and quality assurance "from the leaf to the final formulation."

Clement Pappas, a Carneys Point, N.J.-based supplier of private label fruit juices, fruit drinks and other beverages, has been tracking the levels of stevia-related consumer awareness during the last several years, notes Pat Nicolino, the company's vice president of marketing. "Infomercials and advertisements for

products containing sugar — such as Sugar in

the Raw combined with stevia and the Truvia and Pure Via brands of 'packets' — have really helped generate interest," she says. "For the last few years, we have routinely been telling retailers that stevia has the power to 'leapfrog' and build demand pretty fast."

Don't discount xylitol

Stevia-derived sweeteners might be getting the most attention, but xylitol, a sugar alcohol, also fits in well with consumers' interest in natural alternatives. As Andrew Reid, CEO of Broomfield, Colo.-based Xylitol USA, explains, xylitol comes in low on the glycemic index, making it a particularly good option for diabetics. Although sucralose and other low-calorie artificial sweeteners also score low on the index, they must be bulked up with fillers such as maltodextrin and dextrose to be used in baking and other applications. And those fillers actually score high on the index.

"When you're dealing with xylitol, you're dealing with a pure xylitol," Reid explains. "One for one, it's the same sweetness as sugar."

Xylitol also gets bonus points for its cooling effect and its oral health benefits (making it popular for chewing gum applications), as well as its antibacterial properties. Reid believes xylitol has the potential to be a "tabletop sugar for everybody," as well as a natural sweetener in many, many finished products.

Xylitol USA, a subsidiary of Xylitol Canada in Toronto, introduced the Xyla brand of xylitol for tabletop applications and as an ingredient in finished products — and will be building a new xylitol plant in North America within two years. The xylitol comes from trees located in the United States, Reid notes.

Spoon it on

The application, of course, also influences the sweetener choice. On the tabletop side, both natural and artificial alternative sweeteners have their place, with budget-conscious consumers looking for less-expensive store brand bulk and packet options. Coulon also notes increased interest and availability of brown sugar substitutes or brown sugar blended with sugar substitutes, primarily during holiday baking time.

But retailers also could build store brand sales in the tabletop sweetener category by giving consumers options with a unique twist. For example, Heartland Sweeteners' Ideal sweetener — a blend of xylitol and sucralose — bakes more like sugar than other no-calorie sweeteners, Coulon contends, giving consumers who like to bake another option to sucralose-plus-maltodextrin/dextrose fillers. Both sucralose and xylitol retain their sweetness during baking (unlike aspartame and saccharin). And the company's Ideal product line also offers sugar-free brown and confectionary items.

Pyure Brands also has a unique tabletop product line, Fleischer says, which will be featured in Whole Foods Market stores beginning this month. Called PyureOrganic, the organic stevia extract line contains organic agave inulin fiber, which aids in digestion.

"We're able to do private label organic solutions for retailers as well," he says.

Sweet inside

When it comes to finished products, most alternative sweetener suppliers have the expertise to help retailers reformulate existing products and guide them in new product development. But you won't find a one-size-fits-all solution.

On the stevia side, Jessica Jones-Dille, senior manager, industry trends and market research for WILD Flavors of Erlanger, Ky., calls stevia a "good cost-effective way" to meet consumer desire for no-calorie and lower-calorie all-natural beverage products because it works well across many beverage applications and flavor types. The sweetener also performs well in bakery products, confections, sauces, dressings and condiments.

"There are many taste modification technologies specifically developed to work in conjunction with stevia available on the market that help alleviate any negative taste characteristics that may arise," she says. WILD's Sunwin Stevia she says. WILD's Sunwin Stevia product line, in conjunction with the company's stevia-specific taste modification technologies, offer significant cost advantages, she adds, and meet the "most stringent taste guidelines for consumer acceptability and likeability."

Fleishman says retailers need to understand reformulation is not a "quick fix" with stevia. Becomes the sweetener is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, manufacturers need to perform quite a bit of tweaking on the back end.

"Whether you're doing a private label baked good or something else, we have a technical team that can actually turnkey that solution," he says. "It's a very technical ingredient to work with."

Nicolino agrees. "When we work with stevia, things change radically," she says. "Stevia can be purchased from a number of suppliers, and each one of [the ingredients] tastes different — the raw material 'stevia/Reb-A' is not like sugar [in that] sugar always tastes like sugar."

Many manufacturers now are combining stevia with sugar to reduce instead of eliminate calories, notes Sid Purkayastha, vice president of technical development and support for PureCircle. Finished products benefit from the "high-intensity sweetness of stevia" and the "taste and bulking characteristics of sugar." To help product developers here, PureCircle and Imperial Sugar Co. jointly developed the Steviacane product, which combines the two ingredients "at a molecular level through compound crystallization."

With stevia, cobranding also is an option on the finished-goods side, Tucker says — and is something national brands already are doing with Truvia rebiana.

For its part, xylitol is easier to use than stevia, Reid maintains, and can be used in just about any application outside of bread baking (yeast cannot ferment xylitol). Xylitol USA is able to work with retailers to reformulate existing products to be sugar-free, he adds, as well as to develop new ones.

Although retailers might find it difficult to wade through all the choices, alternative sweeteners only stand to grow in appeal in the years to come.

"We see this to be a continually evolving ingredient area as health and wellness trends continue and more emphasis is placed on calorie control, reducing carbohydrates and losing weight," Nicolino says. "It is challenging— there is no question about it. But frankly, it is fun."

'Many consumers prefer the taste and origin of a natural sweetener.'

— Ann Tucker, director of marketing and communications, Truvia brand, Cargill Inc.