Poor sugar. It’s the most unpopular popular ingredient in the world. While almost all people love and crave it — including 87% of the ever-important Millennials and Gen Zers —, a 2018 Ipsos study found 70% of Americans are concerned about their sugar intake; a FoodInsight investigation found that 77% of American adults are actively trying to curb their sugar; and Mintel learned 60% of parents with kids under 18 are doing the same.
Considering 68% of packaged foods, including sauces and meats, have added sugar, and coupled with ongoing trends toward organic and all-natural products, consumers’ love/hate relationship with sugar puts some serious constraints on the consumer packaged goods industry.
Here we explore some of the latest trends, techniques, and innovations that are spicing up the “sugar” market and show how constraints can push progress.
Origin of the Sugar Substitute Species:
Constraints are what started the whole sugar substitute industry in the first place. The original sugar substitute, saccharin, hit the market in 1894, but sales didn’t pick up until World War I’s sugar rations forced consumers and manufacturers to find new routes to their sweet spot. This saccharin boom in turn inspired a new wave in synthetic sugars, particularly after World War II’s stricter rations and the rise of mass dieting during the 1950s pushed the market even further away from sugarcane.
As with man-made fibers, most of these sugar substitutes were chemically constructed, including Cyclamate (invented: 1937), Aspartame (1965), and Acesulfame potassium (1967), among others. Consumers gladly ate up these faux sugar for years, but subsequent research into potential health hazards — and in Cylcamate’s case, a 1969 ban — shrunk that market, and continues to do so: Nielsen found that 54% of Americans today avoid artificial sugars. But this constraint just inspires FAROUT thinking.
From the Ground Up:
The forest floor may be a goldmine for the Colorado-based MycoTechnology, which uses a fungi extract called ClearTaste not to make something sweet, but to counter bitterness. It literally stops your tongue from tasting bitter flavors. This means manufacturers who use sugar to mask bitter additives, such as protein, caffeine or herbal extracts, can suppress the consumer’s flavor receptors, saving sugar content and cost. The Milwaukee-based Sensient is doing the same, only they’re sourcing from tree roots and bark.
And expect more intriguing findings in this realm, because soda giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are also on the hunt for new sugar alternatives and production methods: Coca-Cola’s working with Chromocell to find new routes to reduce bitterness, and arch rival PepsiCo’s collaborating with Senomyx to explore hundreds of thousands of novel substances for sweet-tasting compounds.
New Old Frontiers:
Meanwhile, as the aforementioned researchers pursue new ingredients, others are making what’s old new again. For example, monk fruit, which Chinese doctors have used for thousands of years, are being sourced for their sweet mogrosidecompounds, and can be found in brands such as VerySweet, Nectresse, and Monk Fruit in the Raw. In addition to being non-GMO and about 150x sweeter than sugar, they’re diabetic safe.
Similarly, the ingredient maker Beneo uses sugar beets to make a low glycemic sugar called Palatinose; South Korea’s Morning Recovery replaces sugar with pear extract to rebalance B12; and the U.S.-based Carolina Sweet taps sweet potatoes for a liquid sugar replacement that’s sweeter than the real deal. And, on a related note, many companies are turning to allulose, a rare sugar sourced from figs and raisins and which can be mass produced for CPGs.
As the name suggests, the Israeli company Amai Proteins doesn’t look at plant-based sugar compounds, but plant-based proteins, specifically thaumatin from Nigeria’s katemfe plant. But rather than sourcing the protein from the fruit itself, an expensive and carbon-producing process, Amai Proteins creates their own thaumatin by mapping and placing amino acids through cutting edge computational protein design. The end result is a product that’s sweeter than sugar, more water soluble, and, since it’s a protein, doesn’t raise blood sugar.
The companies Natur Research and Miraculex are doing similar work: the former with Cweet, which is sourced from the oubli plant’s brazzein proteins, and the latter “miracle fruit,” a berry whose glycoprotein Miraculin turns anything sweet. You may have seen a few thousand YouTube videos on the subject.
Meanwhile, starches are the not-so-secret ingredient for BioNeutra’s VitaFiber IMO, a sweet-tasting prebiotic that comes in both powder and syrup forms. The Israeli company Lampados International also works with prebiotics, in their case creating Liteez, a melting meringue for hot liquids.
Processed, In a Good Way:
Rather than looking at ingredients, others are looking at their production process to reduce sugar. The California-based company KukaXoco found a way to de-bitter their product during the coca extraction process and claims they can reduce added sugar in sodas by 80%. And DouxMatok is going even further: Drawing on how medicine targets specific areas of the body, they’re exploring ways to deliver sugar directly to taste receptors, reducing the need for additional flavoring.
Finally, in terms of innovative culinary trends, a growing number of restaurants are offering novel and healthy sugar alternatives: avocado, celery, olives, and artichokes are finding their way into desserts from coast-to-coast; many eateries are toning down sugar via vinegar and olive oil — Mintel found a 16% increase in olive oil in restaurant desserts between 2015 and 2017, part of a larger trend toward savory flavors —; and pine nuts are gaining traction in that regard, too.
Blueberries remain popular among chefs seeking sweet sans sugar, and ground dates are also a reliable replacement: Kaakao Bars use the natural sweetener in sugar’s stead, reducing reliance on the sweet stuff by 40%, which is sure to please 100% of people looking for new taste sensations.
No matter what the source or method, the approaches here illustrate the ways constraints force innovation. Consumers are limiting their sugar intake, so food producers are finding alternatives. This shows restrictions aren’t always obstacles; sometimes they’re opportunities. Sweet, huh?