With obesity levels predicted to spiral out of control, putting a massive strain on the NHS's resources, processors are coming under increasing pressure to reformulate food and drink products.
But, before they do so, they need to meet consumers' ever-changing demands. Industry needs to know what shoppers want from a product's taste, texture and health, which ingredients are acceptable, and what consumers are willing to pay for.
But finding out these answers is always much tricker than it sounds, as consumers tend to say one thing, but their actions tell a different story like the dieter who picks up a reduced-calorie, triple chocolate cheesecake or the mother who believes some artificial sweeteners are unsafe but only gives her child sugar-free confectionery. So it's no wonder manufacturers flirt with different sweeteners and combinations of ingredients, because it seems that the only guaranteed fact is that consumers want it all.
"Sugar is not easy to replace as we are so used to it this is the first taste that is recognised by babies," says Emily Lauwaert, from the nutrition business unit at Roquette. "Therefore, the choice of the ingredient that will replace it is of high importance."
As a spokesman at Cargill Sweetness points out: "It's very easy to forget that sweetening is only one of several functions fulfilled by sugar in food formulations." In dairy products, for example, non-fat milk solids are often used to offset sugar-bulk loss, but high levels can lead to a gritty taste, which diminishes enjoyment, he says.
According to the ingredient manufacturer, its latest work with erythritol (which is a natural sugar alcohol), has meant that manufacturers can create a full-calorie taste with a full-calorie, mouth-feel but it presents a healthier option in terms of a zero calorie contribution; accredited tooth-friendliness; and zero glycaemic and insulinaemic indices.
"Our confectionery application experts have found a highly innovative way to make zero-calorie, hard-boiled candies, for example," he adds. "Using a patented technique, we are now able to control the crystallisation behaviour of erythritol using hydrocolloids. This means it can now be formed into traditional hard-boiled candies using conventional depositor techniques."
Meanwhile, Cargill Sweetness' dairy application team has developed a cost-effective, reduced-calorie, stirred-fruit yogurt that combines Zerose, its sweetener made from erythritol, with sucrose and/or glucose/fructose syrup in the fruit preparation. "This form of calorie reduction ensures a product still tastes good in terms of sweetness, as well as mouthfeel," he says.
But re-creating the mouth-feel of sugar is only one of the technical challenges of reformulation. In recent years, flavour companies have been working to develop compounds that have the ability to block or mask some of the flavours commonly associated with high-intensity sweeteners such as bitter, metallic and astringent tastes and this trend is likely to continue, says Leatherhead Food Research.
In its report entitled The global market for intense sweeteners, for example, it details a patent filed by Senomyx that relates to a novel flavour or taste modifier, particularly savoury (umami) or sweet taste modifier, for use in foods and beverages.
The invention consists of non-naturally occurring, non-peptide amide compounds and amide derivatives such as oxalamides, ureas, and acrylamides, says the report. The amide compounds are receptor agonists that can induce sweet taste perception in humans, even at low concentrations. The compounds can enhance: sucrose, fructose, glucose, erythritol, isomalt, lactitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, certain known natural terpenoids, flavonoids, protein sweeteners, aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame K, cyclamate, sucralose and alitame.
As well the obvious technical barriers, manufacturers are weary of some sweeteners because of consumer skepticism. At a recent British Nutrition Foundation conference entitled The Science of Low Calorie Sweeteners Separating Fact from Fiction, Professor Andrew Renwick from the University of Southampton, said that many people do not realise that all approved low-calorie sweeteners have to undergo rigorous safety testing before they can be added to foods or beverages.
"This is something that the food industry must stress. These are safe ingredients and consumers need to be aware that there is a strict criteria used to determine the safe intake for humans of each sweetener."
Sarah Marshall, innovation manager at RSSL's product and ingredient innovation division, agrees that there is a lot of scepticism surrounding sweeteners: "usually of aspartame and saccharin due to some of the negative press around these ingredients". She adds: "This is not helped by some supermarkets opting to make all their own-label products 'aspartame-free'."
However, in a new Tate & Lyle report, commissioned in May 2010, titled European consumers' health and sweetening habits, parents actually preferred to give their children lower-calorie juice drinks sweetened with fructose and sucralose compared with a full-calorie, sugar-sweetened alternative.
In a questionnaire, parents were asked to choose between three drinks. Drink A was a full-sugar juice with 169kJ/100ml, 9.7g of sugar; drink B had reduced calories, 111kJ/100 ml with 6.6g of sugar and was sweetened with sucralose; and drink C had fewer calories, 101kJ/100ml with 5.6g of sugar and sweetened with fructose and sucralose.
Over half of parents (51%) preferred drink B (with sucralose) to A (full-sugar), with only 25% preferring A, and 24% had no preference. Similarly, over half (51%) preferred drink C (sweetened with fructose and sucralose) to A (full-sugar), 27% chose A and 23% had no preference.
But in line with what consumers say they want, new ingredient development has often focused on the growing demand for more natural products, as people express negativity towards additives and ingredients that are perceived as artificial. Stevia, for example, represents one of the most dynamic sectors within the global intense sweeteners market, with sales having risen dramatically since the middle of the last decade as a result of increasing uptake within the US food and drinks industry, according to the LFR report.
"By the middle of the next decade, it is possible that natural varieties may account for up to a quarter of the global sweeteners market," says the report.
But that is not to say all of the latest new product development and research activity has been focused entirely on producing natural variants. According to LFR, Ajinomoto recently described some unusual uses of cyclamate, an artificial sweetener.
For example, it said cyclamate was as an "effective agent for regulating appetite and promoting gastrointestinal health"; and "claimed that the ingredient could alleviate gastrointestinal disorders such as gastrooesophageal reflux disease and functional dyspepsia".
There is a lot of work going on around the edges of sweetener development, adds Marshall at RSSL. As this market continues to grow, manufacturers are offered "infinite opportunities" to blend different sweeteners in combination with other ingredients, such as flavour enhancers, taste-masking compounds and ingredients that confer bulk and texture. The biggest frustration that the industry has is that not all sweeteners have approval in all countries. "And, for that matter, not all sweeteners have the approval of every consumer," she adds.
The Global market for intense Sweeteners published by Leatherhead Food Research:
- The food industry accounts for 90% of worldwide usage of intense sweeteners, with the remainder destined for pharmaceutical products.
- From 2007-09, the global market for intense sweeteners increased by 19% in value terms.
- In 2009, aspartame accounted for a leading 45% of global market value, ahead of sucralose (17%), stevia (12%), acesulfame K (10%) and cyclamate (10%).
- Leading end-user sectors for intense sweeteners include carbonated soft drinks and confectionery, with diet and light varieties accounting for up to 24% of the western European market for carbonated beverages.