Sweeten to Taste

So you’re thinking of developing a new drink. Not just any drink. You want the next “It” drink. The kind of drink that’s going to make you more popular than Angelina Jolie in a room full of orphans.

So where do you start? Well, you’d better start with the sweetener. Whether it’s as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or Fair Trade Tibetan honey, sweetener is the straw that stirs the drink. It’s the first-date kiss. The thing consumers will taste first and remember last about how your drink treats them.

“It’s probably the second thing you always ask, after packaging, is how many calories and what type of sweetener,” said Cydney A Whitmoyer, owner/president of Parkside Beverage in Leesport, Penn. Whitmoyer, who has been a food technologist and beverage formulator since 1989, said you always start with the sweetener, because so many decisions about the beverage are riding on it.

“It’s everything from what flavor a drink has to one of your main cost drivers,” Whitmoyer said.

And consumers have a need for the sweet stuff. According to market researcher Mintel, the market for artificially sweetened foods and beverages topped $5.9 billion in the U.S. in 2005, a 24 percent increase since 1999. That’s on top of the 150 lbs of high-fructose corn syrup and other sugars Americans consume each year – a whopping 53 teaspoons per person per day.

So, the good news is you’re not alone. The bad news is you’re not alone and you’d better get it right. A sweetener can elevate a good drink’s flavor or sink it. It can’t taste too bitter or too artificial. Heaven forbid it tastes too sweet or sends unwanted inches to the hips.

Quite simply, some sweeteners will work well with your drink’s flavor profile while others won’t. For many, it may even turn out to be a custom-designed blend of two or more sweeteners that produce the ideal sugar impression without all the unwanted calories. To help you decide, we’ve brought you the skinny on a pile of sweeteners, natural and otherwise.

Aww, now wasn’t that sweet?


sweetness compared to table sugar 1:1
2003/2004 crop year sales: $1.27 billion (source:USDA)

The Rolls Royce of sugars. Whether it comes from beets or cane, when a company puts sugar on the label, it means sucrose.

Made up of one molecule of fructose and one molecule glucose, the amazing thing about sucrose (sinister if you are Richard Simmons) is it never loses its sweetness. Or, more precisely, we people never seem to lose our taste for
it. It’s the the Ch’i, the life saver, the fountain of youth all
rolled into one.

The problem is unless you are prepared to keep it in solid form, it spoils very easily. And keeping 100 bags of crystalline table sugar around can get kind of awkward, so that means, for a lot of beverage makers, High Fructose Corn Syrup or artificial sweeteners have long surpassed sugars as the sweetener of choice.


SACCHARIN (a.k.a. Sweet ‘N Low and others)
sweetness compared to table sugar 300:1
2006 Sweet ‘N Low & Twin Sugar sales: $51.3 million (source:IRI)
favorite Drinks: Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi (fountain), Tab

Saccharin is as old as the hills. It actually was discovered in 1878 by researchers at Johns Hopkins. It served the country honorably as a substitute for sugar during both World Wars and is heat stable.
There have been rough times. In 1977, the Food and Drug Administration threatened to ban it after several studies suggested huge doses were linked to bladder cancer in mice. After a public outcry, Congress passed a moratorium on the ban and subsequent scientific studies debunked the link as, at best, highly exaggerated.

But because it still carries a stigma, saccharin is still widely used in behind-the-counter formats such as fountain drinks and sodas. These formats play to saccharin’s strengths, namely that it is cheap, it tastes good and it doesn’t degrade over time. In individually labeled and sold products, however, saccharin has largely been eclipsed by other, newer sweeteners like Aspartame and Sucralose.

ASPARTAME (a.k.a. NutraSweet, Equal)
sweetness compared to table sugar 180:1
2006 Equal, NatraTaste, & NutraSweet sales: $65.6 million (source:IRI)
fa vorite Drinks: Diet Coke, Crystal Light powder; (with Ace-K) Diet Nestea Lemon, Diet Snapple

In 1965, James Schlatter was doing research on ulcer treatments when he did the laboratory equivalent of peering into a loaded firearm: he licked his fingers.

That no-no led to one of the most popular artificial sweeteners in the world today.

Highly valued by people with diabetes, aspartame has roughly the same amount of calories per gram as sugar, but a much higher potency. In fact, like most second generation sweeteners, the bulk of powder found in tabletop packets of NutraSweet or Equal is just filler. The amount of sweetness found in just two or three grains of aspartame is enough to seem like a full teaspoon of regular sucrose. Because it costs less and imparts so few calories, aspartame has grown into the bulwark of the diet soft drink and non-alcoholic beverage industry, sweetening everything from carbonated soft drinks to dehydrated iced teas.

That doesn’t mean aspartame isn’t without its drawbacks. Because it imparts a bitter flavor in large doses, aspartame is often blended with Acesulfame potassium, another artificial sweetener. In water, its sweetness doesn’t last, which is why a can of Diet Coke that has been sitting out for a year may not taste sweet at all. Nonetheless CSD makers have been able to build successful aspartame-based CSD brands by tightly managing storage and distribution.

Although it has been dogged by persistent (if false) rumors that it causes everything from autism to blood poisoning, about the only thing that can be said about aspartame is that a small percentage of people with a rare disease called phenylketonuria cannot digest it and shouldn’t drink aspartame. For this reason all beverages with apartame in them must carry this special PKO warning label.

SUCRALOSE (a.k.a. Splenda)
sweetness compared to table sugar 600:1
2006 Splenda sales: $218.6 million (source:IRI)
favorite Drinks: Crystal Light bottled juices; (with Ace-K) Ocean Spray Light, Swiss Miss Fat Free Hot Cocoa Mix, Diet V-8 Splash, Diet Rite

Discovered by British researchers in 1976, sucralose has exploded onto the artificial sweetener market in recent years. Made from a non-metabolizing form of sugar, sucralose doesn’t add calories, dissolves easily in water, is heat stable and has a non-bitter aftertaste. Not surprisingly sucralose is forecast to snatch up about 40 percent of the domestic sweetener market, according to Frost & Sullivan, primarily from aspartame.

Already the beverage industry, which accounts for about 65 percent of the overall artificial sweetener market, is reformulating products such as PepsiOne and Diet Coke
to sucralose. The sweetener’s popularity hasn’t come without a legal debate, however. The Sugar Council; Merisant, the maker of NutraSweet and a lawyer in San Diego have filed lawsuits against the makers of Splenda complaining its “Made from sugar” marketing campaign amounts to false and misleading advertising.

sweetness compared to table sugar 200:1
favorite Drinks: (with aspartame) Coke Zero, Pepsi One, Diet Sprite; (with sucralose) Minute Maid Light juices
Discovered in Germany in 1967, Ace-K’s approval by the Food & Drug Administration in 1998 was eagerly awaited by CSD manufacturers because it gave diet-cola drinks like Pepsi One a longer shelf life than they had had before. Structurally similar to saccharin, it runs afoul of the same bitter side taste aspartame can impart in high quantities. Oddly, however, this bitterness seemingly disappears when mixed with other sweeteners, even aspartame, resulting in a flavor profile very much like sucrose. For this reason, and because it cannot be metabolized by the body, Ace-K has met with tremendous success as a blending partner, accounting for nearly one-third of the artificial sweetener market, second only to aspartame.


ALITAME (a.k.a. Aclame)
sweetness compared to table sugar 2,000:1
not approved in the United States

Most dipeptides aren’t sweet, but the unexpected discovery of aspartame in 1965 touched off an arms race to discover new compounds that were similar. One such discovery was alitame. Developed by Pfizer in the 1980s, alitame is is a third sweetener with several distinct advantages over its second-generation forebears. First, it’s 2,000 times sweeter than sugar, about 10 times sweeter than aspartame. Second, although it is structurally similar to aspartame, it doesn’t contain phenyalanine, meaning people with phenylketanuria can consume it safely.

Alitame does have some limitations, however. Although it offers a clean, sweet taste over a broad range of pH levels and and has nice synergistic effects with other sweeteners, prolonged storage in some standard acidic solutions at elevated temperatures may result in some off flavors. Alitame is approved for a wide range of products in Australia, New Zealand and China but has yet to win approval for use in the United States.

sweetness compared to table sugar 7,000:1
favorite drinks: Kroger Iced Tea, powdered fruit drinks

Neotame is a high-intensity sweetener on steroids. At 7,000 times the sweetness of sugar, it is more than 35 times the sweetness of aspartame. To get the same amount of sweetness as one gram of neotame it would take roughly 15 pounds of table sugar. Try putting that in your coffee.

Because measurements need to be so precise and just 1 or 2 ppm can make a tremendous difference, Neotame is not an option for for 99 percent of startups and most mid-sized beverage makers. For giant beverage companies making huge batches Neotame’s stability and sweetness may one day help it replace aspartame and sucralose.

Neotame was approved for use as a general sweetener in 2002.


sweetness compared to table sugar 1:1
2006 Corn/Crystal/White Syrup sales: $46.7 million (source:IRI)
favorite Drinks: PowerAde, Full Throttle, Nestea, most non-diet soft drinks.

Patented in 1971 by Japanese scientist Yoshiyuki Takasaki, HFCS is used in used in almost every product imaginable from Chips Ahoy cookies to Wishbone salad dressing.
So why does it raise so much ire in doctors, nutritionists and parents?

Probably because while the Corn Refiner’s Association modestly pegs corn syrup’s cost savings at anywhere from 20 to 70 percent over regular sugar, that same advantage to producers has coincided with a sharp increase in the nation’s obesity level. One theory is that greater savings leds to super-sized portions and greater consumption, which in turn leads to fatter Americans. So if you are going to use high fructose corn syrup in your drink, you’d better a strong stomach for criticism and not a few health-conscious consumers who will walk away for nor other reason than they think HFCS is bad.

The bad rap HFCS gets is undeserved, according to Heidi Adams, manager of technical sales and applications
for Corn Products International, one of the largest corn refining companies in the world.

After, all HFCS is no different than other sugars, including sucrose, which the body breaks it down into before pumping it into the blood stream.

Furthermore, over the years, corn HFCS makers have gotten pretty good at making HFCS taste as good, if not
better, than sucrose. One major advantage it has is that its taste is powerful at first, but doesn’t leaving a lingering
aftertaste like some other sweeteners.
“Our target is to be clean and sweet and over the the years that is exactly what we have been able to achieve,” Adams said. Other advantages HFCS has is that it’s more stable than sucrose syrup in liquid form, can be offered as nearly a 1-to-1 replacement for sugar in any recipe, and because the body takes longer to break it it down, fructose makes a better long-running energy source. No wonder then that HFCS is the nation’s most widely used sweetener, popping up in all sorts of beverages from sports drinks to CSDs.

“It’s the beverage manufacturer’s most process-friendly sweetener,” said Ric Boyd, Corn Products’ manager of technical sales support.


sweetness compared to table sugar 1.8:1
favorite Drinks: Fuze Healthy Infusions, Vitaminwater,
SoBe Essential Energy
Fructose is a naturally-occurring sugar found in many fruits and vegetables, but predominantly in honey, which contains over 40 percent fructose.

Fructose is the sweetest of all natural sugars, meaning it can be used in small amounts to achieve serious cost savings without sacrificing serious sweetness.

Other advantages include flavor enhancement, particularly of fruit and chocolate flavors, and flavor masking in relation to intense sweeteners.

Crystalline fructose’s main drawbacks, however, are a lot like sucrose: cost. Most companies aren’t willing to dedicate a separate tank just for dissolved fructose and thousands of bags of solid sweetener can really put a crimp in your social life. Still, if money is no object, formulators often recommend crystalline fructose just for the purity of taste.

“If cost was not an issue I would choose crystalline fructose,” Whitmoyer said.

Because it is broken down more slowly than sucrose and doesn’t cause an insulin reaction, fructose has found a particular niche in sports drinks and beverages designed specifically for diabetics.

Because it is not recognized by the body and doesn’t turn off the appetite switch the way other drinks do, crystalline fructose would be an abysmal choice for any diet drink.

SUGAR CANE JUICE (a.k.a. evaporated cane juice)

Sugar cane juice is made by steeping crushed sugar cane in water and heating it, but the resulting sucrose doesn’t undergo much of the washing and purifying regular table sugar does. Hence it retains many more of the nutrients that fruits and vegetables contain (specifically vitamin B6, calcium and iron). That makes it purer and healthier than processed sugars in the eyes of many health conscious consumers, even though the sweetness and calories are the same.

The major problem with this process is the contamination with a heavy load of microorganisms that comes with the improper cleaning of sugar cane and improper handling. Raw sugar cane juice is rich in carbohydrates and susceptible to contamination from a wide host of yeasts, spoilage bacteria and pathogenic bacteria. Attempts have been made to preserve, protect or pasteurize raw sugar cane juice, but each comes with its own difficulties surrounding added cost, labor or unflattering flavors.

AGAVE SYRUP (a.k.a. agave nectar)
sweetness compared to table sugar 1:1

Agave is a species of succulent plant grows chiefly in Mexico and is the same plant that gives tequila its herbaceous zing. The sap or juice of the agave plant is about 90 percent fructose, which is sweeter than both glucose and sucrose. Agave syrup has the same caloric value as sucrose: 4 calories per gram, 16 calories per teaspoon, but like fructose, the body takes longer to break it down and it doesn’t cause the same insulin reaction as other sugars. For that reason, agave nectar is particularly well suited for sports and energy drinks or drinks targeted specifically for diabetics. Unlike crystalline fructose, which is primarily refined from corn, however, agave syrup is fructose in its natural form, i.e. unprocessed, making it more palatable to the environmental- or health-conscious consumer.


STEVIA (a.k.a. Rebiana or SweetLeaf)
sweetness compared to table sugar 250:1
2006 SweetLeaf sales: $2.4 million (source:IRI)
favorite Drinks: soft drinks, iced teas

As a plant stevia is a South American shrub long used as a substitute for sugar by many indigenous South Americans. As a sweetener, Stevia is a potent sugar substitute that has been used for more than 30 years in Japan and is currently being developed for marketing in the U.S. by Cargill and The Coca-Cola Co. Because the body does not metabolize its sweet glycocides, Stevia does not have a caloric impact and can be used by diabetics.

A reputation for imparting bitterness has long dogged Stevia, but that problem is starting to work itself out.

“Whoever is developing it is having pretty good success in removing the bitter flavors,” Whitmoyer said. But while other natural sweeteners are generally recognized as safe by the American Food and Drug Administration, Stevia is currently regarded as an unsafe additive and can only be used if a product is going to be sold as a dietary supplement.

Whitmoyer said her experience suggests stevia doesn’t work with orange drinks, but does with darker berries that are slightly astringent, like cranberry or red grape juice.

LO HAN GUO (a.k.a. SlimSweet)
sweetness compared to table sugar 300:1
favorite Drinks: fruit-containing beverages, CSDs, iced teas
Lo han guo, an intensely sweet fruit grown on mountainsides primarily in the Guangxi District of China, was long stewed into a thick syrup by locals, but foreigners often found the fruit to have an odd vegetable flavor.

Now consumer giant Procter & Gamble is working with several Chinese licensees to come up with a better-flavored, concentrated extract for use in fruit-containing beverages. Drying removes most of the objectionable flavors found in the fruit, but can produces an astringent or bitter flavor. The down side is it’s brown, which is a difficult color to overcome and it can produce a licorice-like flavor in large amounts.

Lo han guo may have one added benefit, however. Supporters have argued the extract stimulates metabolism making it a calorie burner as well as a low-calorie sweetener. Whatever the veracity of that claim, lo han guo is not yet approved for use as a food additive in the U.S. and is only available for sale as a less-restricted dietary supplement.


ERYTHRITOL (a.k.a. ZSweet)
sweetness compared to table sugar 1:2
favorite Drinks: fruit-containing beverages, CSDs, iced teas
Erythritol is part of a family of polyols or sugar alcohols, that are commonly used as a substitute for sugar in combination with a high-intensity sweetener to compensate for their low sweetness. Polyols either aren’t absorbed by the body or are lower in calories than sugar to start. Erythritol is the latter, having just 0.2 calories per gram. Erythritol has the added benefit of being a clean, sweet, crystalline powder, with a flavor profile similar to sucrose. Unlike other sugar alcohols, Erythritol is almost completely absorbed by the body, avoiding one of the major drawbacks of other sugar alcohols: diarrhea or gastrointestinal distress. Like other sugar alcohols, Erythritol is pricier than aspartame, sucralose and other sugar substitutes.