What’s new in natural sweeteners?

28 Nov 2019

Suppliers have made some major advances in sweetener production in recent months, with the first fermentation-derived nature-identical sweeteners coming to market, and improvements in plant breeding helping to bring down costs.

Only a decade ago, stevia was a relatively new sweetener, and a few pioneering companies had started to extract its most abundant sweet component known as rebaudioside A, or Reb A. Today, stevia sweeteners have gained widespread regulatory approval – including in North America and Europe – and suppliers have analysed stevia’s other sweet components, and bred stevia plants to contain higher quantities of those that work best in foods and drinks, notably PureCircle.

What’s new in natural sweeteners?

Natural sweeteners from fermentation rather than plants have been hailed as a way to decouple sweeteners from agriculture and reduce cost in use. Until recently, the idea of ‘brewing’ such ingredients had been done only on a small scale, but the first sweeteners from fermentation are now coming to market via a joint venture between DSM and Cargill. The resulting Reb M and Reb D stevia extracts are identical on a molecular level to those extracted from plants. However, some have cautioned that the processing itself could devalue the idea of nature-derived sweeteners, as consumers will no longer be able to tell which ingredients actually come from plants and which are manufactured without agriculture.

Only time will tell if consumers will be concerned about how their sweeteners are produced and, if they are, will food and beverage manufacturers endeavour to differentiate plant-derived sweeteners on ingredient lists? While it may seem intuitive that consumers would prefer sweeteners from plants, suppliers of nature-identical sweeteners argue that their ingredients are actually more eco-friendly as they require less agricultural land and water.

Other sweetener suppliers will be watching closely, including those looking to scale up niche natural sweeteners via fermentation. Natur Research Ingredients, for example, is using the process for brazzein, a sweetener from the West African oubli fruit. Allulose manufacturers, like Tate & Lyle and Ingredion, are also likely to be paying close attention as they produce nature-identical allulose via enzymatic conversion of commodity crops. Allulose is found fruits like figs and raisins in very low quantities but cannot be produced on a commercial scale.

In monk fruit, too, suppliers have been working on lowering its cost in use. This has been a major stumbling block for food and drink manufacturers, many of which have opted to use sweetener blends, particularly combinations of monk fruit and stevia, which they claim allows them to benefit from the lower cost of stevia extracts alongside a more sugar-like taste from monk fruit.

Just as PureCircle used traditional plant breeding techniques to boost Reb D and Reb M in stevia plants, Layn Corp now has developed a proprietary strain of monk fruit that contains 20% more sweet components, known as mogrosides. Its new variety is said to contain 0.5% mogrosides, compared to the 0.3% the fruit usually contains, and the company’s non-GMO plant breeding programme is targeting monk fruit with 1% mogrosides by the end of 2020. Higher sweetness means less land, water and other agricultural inputs are used for the same quantity of sweetener, theoretically bringing down the cost of monk fruit extracts.

Rabobank figures show that global use of plant-derived sweeteners – particularly stevia – has increased an average of 12% a year from 2009 to 2019, while growth in artificial sweeteners has remained almost flat at 0.6%. It suggests that a natural image and improvements in taste are behind the surge in natural sweeteners. Decreasing costs are likely to give them an added boost.

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