Sweet on stevia

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Sugar substitute, Sweeteners, Sugar

Sweet on stevia
Does stevia have the wings to get the sugar-free/ tooth-friendly confectionery market off the ground? Lynda Searby reports

When it comes to sugar-free/ tooth-friendly confectionery, the UK lags behind its European neighbours in both size and imagination.

Sugar-free/tooth-friendly products are mainly limited to chewing gum, with a handful of exceptions, such as Sugar Free Polos, Smint sugar-free mints, Ricola Swiss Herb Drops and the Marks & Spencer and Holland & Barrett sugar-free sweets.

"The UK has always been one of the smallest markets in terms of tooth-friendly/sugar-free confectionery,"​ says Kati Weiss of Toothfriendly International, the European association that licences the Toothfriendly logo. "First and foremost, the UK is a very chocolate-oriented market a category that is challenging for sugar-free varieties. Secondly, Britons seem to be very sceptical about the artificial nature of certain sweeteners. In chewing gum, funnily, sugar replacers are accepted and even preferred. In other categories, sweeteners are avoided."

When a market is unusually small, there is generally one of two explanations: either the potential is still largely untapped, or there is no interest in the products that market is offering.

Weiss's comments suggest that the UK's sugar-free/tooth-friendly confectionery market falls into the latter category, in other words, there is very little demand for these products.

On the other hand, there is some evidence to indicate that it may just be a market-in-waiting.

Untapped potential

Children are major consumers of confectionery, and there is growing awareness and concern among parents about the impact of eating too many sweets and chocolate on their children's health. This is driving interest in 'better for you' confectionery, according to Tim Van der Schraelen, marketing communications manager with ingredient producer Beneo.

"Healthy confectionery is playing an increasing role, in particular for children, as parents want to avoid the damage that can be caused by their children indulging a sweet tooth. Knowing that, worldwide, almost 99% of the population is affected by tooth caries, adults are now also becoming increasingly interested in tooth-friendly alternatives for themselves," ​he says.

Beneo conducted research, which found that consumers are looking for healthier alternatives to sugar-coated chocolate sweets and would pay a 10% premium for tooth-friendly variants if these alternatives were brought to market.

Could it be that there is latent interest in sugar-free and tooth-friendly confectionery, but that something is stopping manufacturers from acting on it?

Picking up on Weiss's earlier comment, it would appear that consumer reluctance to eat confectionery containing certain sweeteners is a stumbling block.

Mintel makes this point in its November 2011 UK Sugar and Gum Confectionery report, which states: "Impacting the sugar-free/ reduced-sugar segment are consumer attitudes towards the use of high-fructose corn syrup and debate between the use of artificial and natural sweeteners."

This aversion to sweeteners extends to polyols, according to Henry Hussell, head of marketing for health and nutrition Europe, Middle East and Africa with Cargill.

"The UK is not a strong polyol zone. We've tried to work out why and we're not sure if it's historic. It could be to do with sorbitol being abused when it was first introduced."

Products containing 10% polyol now have to include a warning on-pack, which he believes some manufacturers may see as a barrier.

If manufacturers are looking to market a product as 'sugar-free', there is no alternative but to use polyols. "The sweeteners directive states that you can only use high-intensity sweeteners together with polyols in confectionery products. In other words, you can't have a mixture of sugar, polyol and high-intensity sweetener,"​ explains Hussell.

This is where the distinction between sugar-free and tooth-friendly confectionery comes in. While all intense sweeteners and most polyols are considered safe for teeth, sweeteners containing fermentable carbohydrates are not, as when the bacteria in the mouth consumes these fermentable carbohydrates, acids are formed which can cause caries.

But even products that only use sweeteners that are considered safe for teeth cannot necessarily claim to be 'tooth friendly'.

"It is essential that all ingredients used in the final formulation are non-cariogenic,"​ explains Beneo's Van der Schraelen. "For example, various milk sugars used traditionally in chocolate, as well as acid flavours such as orange or citrus in candy or gums, are a challenge in recipes because they may attack the tooth enamel. Only those products that have been tested with the plaque pH telemetry test confirming their non-cariogenic properties can be claimed as tooth friendly."

Taking a tooth-friendly tack

And just as 'sugar free' doesn't automatically mean 'tooth friendly', 'tooth friendly' doesn't always mean 'sugar free', with the advent of non-cariogenic sugars.

Beneo says its 'next generation carbohydrate' Palatinose (isomaltulose) is the first sugar to have tooth-friendly credentials. Derived from beet sugar, it is a white, crystalline powder that gives the same energy as sugar and a similar sweetness. While it can't be claimed as sugar-free, being fully digestible, Palatinose enables the production of tooth-friendly chocolate, chewable sweets and gums without any negative digestive side-effects, says Beneo. In other words, adopting a tooth-friendly positioning can enable products to avoid the undesirable on-pack warning.

Using isomaltulose as a sweetener and milk proteins instead of milk powder to avoid the presence of lactose has enabled Belgian chocolate and cocoa ingredient producer Barry Callebaut to develop a tooth-friendly chocolate. Currently, the chocolate is only being supplied to a small number of customers in Germany.

Stevia to the rescue?

The approval of stevia in the EU could also signal a breakthrough for sugar-free/tooth-friendly confectionery, as manufacturers can break the artificial association with sweeteners.

"Stevia is seen as something parents would be more prepared for their children to consume than some high-intensity sweeteners,"​ says Hussell. "A number of companies who produce confectionery are interested in seeing what they can do with stevia and I hope there will be some products on the market in 2012."

Hussell says he sees the focus being on achieving a 'reduced-calorie' rather than a 'sugar-free' positioning.

"I don't think the sugar-free aspect is usually the prime driver for using stevia it's more about natural calorie reduction."

Stevia's natural credentials stem from its plant origins, but the extent to which manufacturers will be able to capitalise on the natural message will depend on what the Food Standards Agency determines as being acceptable wording. Hussell admits that descriptors like 'natural' and 'naturally sweetened' probably won't be permitted and that the natural message will more likely be conveyed through terms like 'natural source' or using, for example, plant and leaf imagery.

In terms of what Cargill can do in stevia-sweetened confectionery, Hussell says it can create sugar-free variants of most confectionery products but formulation becomes more difficult with soft products.

This is not the only challenge faced when working with stevia in confectionery.

Another dilemma is what other sweeteners/ bulking agents to combine it with, as there's no point in using stevia along with sweeteners that won't be accepted by consumers.

"The marketing opportunity for using stevia particularly its natural and calorie-free positioning can be lost if other non-natural sweeteners are used,"​ says Peter Naylor, director of strategic business development at flavour specialist Wild. "However, stevia in combination with Fruit Up: a 100% fruit-derived calorific bulk sweetener and natural, clean-label option, works extremely well on taste."

Flavour suppliers, meanwhile, are busy finding solutions to mask the bitter taste of stevia.

Sensient Flavors, for example, has just launched its APPS line of natural flavours for creating a sugar-like sweetness while masking the undesirable off-tastes, which are often caused by high-intensity sweeteners. Sensient confirmed that it had done successful trials with stevia-sweetened hard boiled candies and jellies.

Wild has developed 'Taste Optimisation Technology', which it says eliminates the characteristic liquorice nuance and partly bitter aftertaste of stevia. Drawing on this and its other technologies, Wild claims to have created 'excellent tasting' chewing gums, hard-boiled candies and jelly gums that are sugar free.

Stevia in chocolate

Barry Callebaut also thinks stevia could fire up the chocolate confectionery market.

"Overall, we are of the opinion that the market for tooth-friendly and sugar-free confectionery has been more or less stable up to now. It makes up to 5% of the total chocolate confectionery market, that is, it is still a niche. However, with the entry of stevia into Europe, market dynamics might change," ​says external communications manager Raphael Wermuth.

At the Food Ingredients Europe show, Barry Callebaut was sampling chocolate in which sugar had been completely replaced with a sweetening system containing dietary fibres and stevia extract, providing 65% fewer calories than sugar. The company claims to be the first chocolate maker to produce a 'no added sugar' chocolate with stevia extract and without any laxative effects on an industrial scale.

Unless consumers can be convinced that sugar-free and tooth-friendly confectionery products really are 'better for you', they are unlikely to develop into anything other than an unremarkable niche. Time will tell whether stevia can win over the cynics.