By Shari Mahon, Sweegen’s chief of global flavor application technology
Across a wide spectrum of foods and beverages, brands are actively reducing sugar and artificial sweeteners and replacing them with natural sweeteners. The goal is to create consumer-preferred, winning products. But to arrive at this celebratory milestone, there are hurdles to overcome in the development process. This is especially true in achieving synergy between sweetness and flavors while reducing sugar in different applications.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for reducing sugar in products. However, the need for sugar reduction solutions incorporating taste modulators, to fine-tune overall taste and sweetness, is key to developing a market-leading product.
As product developers consider their options for optimal taste and sweetness, other factors such as scale, cost, sustainability, regulatory and, most importantly, consumer preferences drive decisions and trade-offs. In fact, perhaps the biggest challenge in a product developer’s experience in sugar reduction is delivering a consumer-preferred product that satisfies everyone along the value chain.
Consumers are more label conscious when it comes to sugar than ever before, and the demand for natural sweeteners and products with less sugar is on the rise. More than 66% of consumers prefer to see natural sweeteners over artificial on the labelDisplay footnote number:a, and this trend drives brands to seek solutions in the natural sweetener space.
Legislation is also a key driver with increasing sugar taxation and stricter labeling for higher sugar-containing foods and beverages. Even natural sweeteners will soon be labeled under a warning label in MexicoDisplay (footnote number:b,) which is driving the need for more natural taste modulators to provide sweetness without being identified as sweeteners on labels and only claiming natural flavors.
Given all of these factors, there is a need for a flexible approach to sugar reduction that incorporates both natural, non-nutritive sweeteners and taste modulators.
Evolution of Nature-based High-Intensity Sweeteners
The first-generation of nature-based high-intensity sweeteners on the market was dominated by the individual steviol glycoside rebaudioside A, or reb A, from the stevia leaf and monk fruitDisplay footnote number:c. While monk fruit suffered from taste concerns and finite supply, the first stevia offerings exhibited aftertastes and bitterness in the taste profiles. The taste concerns led to exploration into the rest of the plant leaf to identify better-tasting steviol glycosides.
The best tasting steviol glycosides occurred in trace amounts in the leaf, which led to supply concerns with these new ingredients. Today, after many years of intensive research into new production methods, next-generation stevia sweeteners such as rebs D, E and M are now readily available from sustainable processes and have expanded food and beverage manufacturers’ natural sweetener toolkits to develop products.
In the near future, the innovation focus will be on combining these new sweeteners from sustainable natural processes to develop a sugar reduction portfolio that provides brands with the solutions to deliver a taste experience for consumers comparable to full sugar.
Evolution of Natural Taste Modulation
Early natural taste modulation flavors for sweet enhancement, masking off notes, salt enhancement and mouthfeel enhancement consisted of natural ingredients, sweeteners and flavor chemicals.
Over the years, the further understanding of taste receptors and the advancements in positive allosteric molecules (PAMs) have paved the way for this next generation of taste modulators, which assist marketers and product developers in delivering the exact taste experience based on consumer insights data.
Today’s PAMs have the ability to enhance or block a consumer’s perception of sweet, salt, fat, umami or bitter. The advancements have allowed brands to reduce sugar, salt and fat in their products in some cases up to 60%, claiming only natural flavor and keeping the label simple without the addition of new ingredients.
For example, a PAM in a sweetness modifying flavor system enhances the sweetness of an already existing sweetener in the food or beverage system, giving the perception of higher sweetness. This mechanism allows a product developer to significantly reduce sugar or HIS sweetener by up to 50% in a product.
Another key innovation is controlling the sweetness perception of the consumer as it pertains to the sweet linger or the sweet onset. Sugar has a very distinctive onset of sweetness that most natural highintensity sweeteners do not exhibit.
Reb M has a very distinctive sweet linger from the middle to the end of the taste experience that sugar does not exhibit. To illustrate how ingredient combinations for controlling onset and linger might work, consider a gummy confection.
The combination of natural flavor compounds and PAMs in a taste modulation flavor coupled with a nature-based high-intensity sweetener, such as reb M, can deliver a great tasting reduced sugar product with the taste and texture of a full-sugar product.
Future innovations in this area will continue to focus on new PAMs and their ability to enhance or block above the 60% mark while keeping the natural flavor labeling. The focus will remain on sustainable sourcing and processing to ensure supply as the food and beverage industry launches more health and wellness products in the global market.
Regulatory will play a much larger role as food and beverage manufacturers are forced to move rapidly to modify products to meet labeling or taxation guidelines, and the industry awaits approvals for new ingredients, processes or decisions on naturality for labeling.
Developing Winning Health and Wellness Product
Whether a food and beverage manufacturer is modifying an existing brand or creating an all-new better-for-you product, the industry offers many innovative ingredients and services.
To develop a health and wellness product that has longevity in the market and resonates with consumers, finding an integrated partner who can deliver rapid custom-tailored solutions through very focused and personalized product development, and sensory services utilizing a deep portfolio of unique ingredients and taste modulators, is key.
Product developers are faced with many challenges when developing a new product. First and foremost, the product must taste great and meet consumer preference. Second, the product must meet all the internal objectives.
For example, the product might need to meet a variety of objectives such as aggressive cost in use targets, ease of use in manufacturing, a clean or simplified label, possible health claims, global compliance, extended shelf life, organic compliance, non-GMO project verified, etc.
Working in partnership with an integrated partner with both the consumer and client understanding will speed up the product development time and increase the product’s chances for success both internally and in the marketplace.
Focused consumer insights and sensory data, coupled with vertically integrated portfolios of ingredients and innovative taste modulation flavors, positioned together utilizing a creative building block approach, creates a winning solution for a brand and a great-tasting and enjoyable product for the consumer.
Agile suppliers with unique sugar reduction portfolios and specialized expertise in product development are needed to support this building block approach. Many of these companies can also assist in navigating the ever-changing IP landscape surrounding nature-based sweeteners and taste modulation, which can be confusing for even the most seasoned product developer or patent attorney.
Delivering a Reduced Sugar Health and Wellness Gummy
Different categories present their own set of challenges when reducing sugar. For example, the obstacles in beverages are the up-front sweetness, mouthfeel and cost-in-use.
In baked goods and dairy, sugar plays a key role in the functionality and structure of the product, not to mention the mouthfeel and taste. In confectionery, sugar has functionality and plays a key role in the structure of the confection. So, without the sugar or a bulking agent or gum, the structure of the confection is compromised.
For confectionery flavor, it is the sweetness that carries the flavor profile through the consumer’s taste experience, starting with the up-front sweetness, controlling the linger and following through with the mouthfeel. For the mouthfeel and texture of the confection, the consumer must have the same taste experience as a full-sugar confection.
Consider a project for a mango-flavored reduced sugar gummy candy with the following parameters: kid-friendly, clean label, natural, no artificial sweeteners, colors or flavors, no sugar alcohols, initial launch in North America and LATAM, and must pass preference consumer testing vs. a full-sugar control.
When focusing on finding the flavor or sweetener molecules that 1) give the perception of sweetness during the onset, 2) control the linger at the desired time of which the consumer wishes to have the linger stopped during the taste experience, and 3) provide a desirable finish of the flavor profile while delivering significant sugar reduction, a creative building block approach will deliver the winning solution. The creative building block approach is systematic and very much like building a home, starting with the foundation.
Delivering the exact experience that consumers prefer requires working with consumers directly. Utilizing a trained descriptive panel specifically trained for sugar reduction will allow for more specialized product development. Removing the sugar and building back the foundation through finding the right blends of natural sweeteners to get as close to a sugar profile—with the correct onset of sweetness and carry through of sweetness in the taste—profile is important.
For this specific product, 75% reduction is most comparable to a full-sugar profile. Once the sweetener blend is determined, the texture and mouthfeel are dialed in to carry through the flavor and sweetness profile, which creates a product close to the full-sugar target. Sensory testing is performed utilizing a 15-point intensity scale for attributes specific to the overall impression, sweetness, off-tastes and texture.
The mango gummy candy 75% reduced sugar building block phase #1 (F-1) testing showcases the ability for next-generation stevia sweeteners to deliver a profile close to sugar, but some fine-tuning for sweetness onset, sweet/sour balance, bitter reduction and texture are required. The sweetener foundation for this product was created through a proprietary blend of next-generation rebaudiosides blended in different ratios to navigate the IP landscape and deliver a product as close to a full-sugar profile as possible.
To retain the structure of the gummy and create texture to mimic the same texture of the full-sugar gummy candy, a blend of gelatin, inulin and tapioca syrup was utilized to replace the sugar. The addition of the tapioca syrup contributes some sugar to the gummy, which doesn’t allow for a full zero-added sugar solution, but the ingredient provides the consumer with a label-friendly, more enjoyable taste experience.
The sweetness perception in the onset, linger and overall sweet perception is lower than the control, and the bitterness and astringency are slightly higher and will need adjustment to deliver a product to meet consumer preference. Using natural flavor molecule building blocks for astringency, sweetness onset, bitter blocking, linger correcting, and adjusting the textural components of the solution will rebalance the system and position the product for another round of consumer preference testing.
The mango gummy candy 75% reduced sugar building block phase #2 (F-2) testing showcases how dialing in key attributes from the previous consumer testing results with taste modulation improves the product and pushes the product past the full-sugar profile in some areas.
When compared to the two previous samples, the new gummy candy is comparable to the full-sugar control; the texture is more desirable and the overall sweetness perception and flavor is preferred.
By improving the sweet onset and controlling the linger coupled with the textural improvements to help carry the flavor profile through the taste experience and rebalancing the bitter, sour and astringency, the overall product was improved.
By utilizing a trained consumer panel, experienced product developers with deep knowledge of a unique portfolio of nature-based sweeteners, texturants and natural taste modulation flavors used a creative building block approach to deliver the best tasting health and wellness product. A winning 75% sugar-reduced gummy candy that met all the client’s objectives was created.
Future of Nature-Based Sweeteners and Taste Modulation
Advancements in sensory and consumer insights, coupled with the understanding of taste receptors and human emotions plus robust innovation pipelines of molecules around the area of taste modulation, will drive the future of this area.
The focus will be on sustainable sourcing and production of both the nature-based sweeteners and the flavor molecules as more attention is focused on carbon and water footprints and natural resources. Production methodologies that leverage bioconversion and fermentation enable access to an ever-growing toolkit of ingredients that will enable the fine-tuned approach required to achieve the sugar reduction needed for increased health and wellness across the globe.
The continued drive for innovation in taste modulation and sweetness will help make the product developer’s ability to reduce sugar easier, and ultimately the consumer will win with a wider range of great-tasting products that reduce or eliminate the worries about the health effects of sugar.