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The Search for the and Natural Holy Grail: Sweeteners and Colors for Beverages

Albion Minerals®

“Mom, why are there vegetables in my Vitaminwater?” came the question from my 7-year-old son reading the ingredient statement as we drove to soccer practice last week. (Yes, as a food scientist, I am one of those moms who constantly points out which ingredients are real, and which are not in the vast array of eye candy my kids are exposed to every day.) And so, after a quick prayer of gratitude that he actually listens to me occasionally, I carefully explained that vegetables are sometimes used as natural colorings in drinks, as opposed to, say, the Blue No. 1 contained in his favorite Gatorade.

I’m not the only one. Consumers as a whole are moving toward more natural colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives. They are asking for clean, simple labels and sustainable packaging and processing. From a technical standpoint, using “natural” sweeteners and colors offer some of the greatest challenges to product formulators, and correspondingly, some of the greatest opportunities for new product innovation as well.

High Intensity Sweeteners and the Search for “Natural” As the obesity and diabetes issues of the nation have come to the forefront, manufacturers have been working harder than ever to create lower calorie options. We’ve had a number of artificial sweeteners for years, from the original saccharin to acesulfame-K, aspartame, and more recently, sucralose. In mainstream grocery stores, beverages with these sweeteners do extraordinarily well.

In 2010 Chinese luo han guo, or monk fruit, was given GRAS (generally recognized as safe) approval by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). Fruit Sweetness is produced by New Zealand-based BioVittoria (www.biovittoria.com) and provides formulators with an ingredient, while not inexpensive, is 150 times sweeter than sugar, with zero calories. Economics, along with a molasses/brown sugar flavor profile, have thus far prevented it from being widely adopted.

The latest trend in high intensity sweeteners is the use of stevia leaf extract. This option became available in 2013 when the FDA gave the green light for using stevia leaf extract in beverages, after granting it GRAS status in 2008. While steviol glycosides (the alternate term for stevia leaf extract), are allowed in Whole Foods, and generally considered “natural” in the industry, there remain questions about just how “natural” they really are, given the processing involved. Despite this, both consumer and retailer acceptance is high, the product is considered safe, and an increasing number of beverages are being introduced sweetened with stevia.

Stevia Challenges 

However, stevia is not without its challenges. Consider Coca Cola’s recent announcement concerning its Vitaminwater formula. “We tinkered with the taste of Vitaminwater and our fans haven’t had the greatest things to say about it. So we’re changing back to the taste you know and love … ” Away from stevia back to the blend of cane sugar and crystalline fructose they originally used. So what happened? In three words: taste is king. First and foremost, consumers want products to taste good, and stevia is notoriously tricky to work with, known for its bitter taste and lingering endnotes. While consumers say they want lower calorie options, unless it tastes great, they simply won’t purchase twice. Substituting stevia into a flagship brand such as Vitaminwater is fraught with risk, given the difference in flavor. The good news is that researchers are developing strategies to minimize these flavor downsides.

Proprietary Blending with Steviol Glycosides 

Most product manufacturers choose to target reduced calorie instead of zero calorie in order to get better-tasting beverages. Or, as Thom King, founder and president of Oregon-based Steviva Ingredients (www.steviva.com), says, “The key is sugar reduction, not sugar elimination. The biggest trick is knowing how to mask the flavor and at the same time build the mouthfeel back up.” When sugar is removed from a formula, and replaced with a higher intensity sweetener, the texture changes. Steviva specializes in creating custom blends different applications. King finds that bulking sweeteners like erythritol and xylitol combine well with stevia. He’s also had success using fructooligosaccharides (FOS) like inulin to help build the texture back up. FOS, which are 60 to 70 percent as sweet as sugar, have the added benefit of acting as prebiotics, with a number of documented health benefits based around supporting the growth of gut microflora.

Proprietary Blends of Glycosides 

Earlier this year, Minnesota-based Cargill (www.cargill) introduced its ViaTech line of stevia based sweeteners. Often used when the beverage requires more than a 30 percent reduction in calories, this line was developed with a very different approach. Instead of using proprietary blends of bulking sweeteners and flavor masking agents, Cargill dived deep into the science of stevia itself. According to Scott Fabro, global business director, High Intensity Sweeteners, the company has isolated the 40-plus glycosides contained in stevia that are responsible for the sweetness. They have optimized the combinations and levels of specific glycosides to take advantage of the natural synergies that take place, and at the same time, minimizing the bitterness and the licorice linger that is often associated with stevia. The line was awarded the Functional Ingredients 2014 “Editor’s Choice Award for Best New Ingredient in a Beverage” at Engredea. According to Fabro, the line was created to optimize two factors: taste and economics in use. “Companies can use the same sweetener across many different product categories, simplifying life for purchasing.” 

Global beverage manufacturers are working hard to find that reduced-calorie, great tasting, natural solution, with no one spending as much as the leading carbonated beverage manufacturers, who continue to see declining sales. Some of the recent products in pilot globally include Pepsi Next, available in Australia and parts of Europe, made with stevia and sugar, as well as Coca Cola Life, supposedly rolling out in the U. K. and the U.S. this year. But as the response to Vitaminwater reformulation clearly shows, there is no magic bullet.

Natural Colors: Keeping Up With Demand 

In 2011, the global market for natural food colors was as $600 million, comprising almost 40 percent of the $1.55 billion food color market, up 29 percent from 2007, according to a 2013 report by Mintel and Leatherhead Food Research. Sales of natural colors are expected to increase, driven by consumer demand that began with concerns about the potential connection between food dyes and hyperactivity in children.
And while mainstream companies like Kraft are being asked to reformulate their flagship boxed Macaroni & Cheese to remove dyes, beverage manufacturers have special challenges in reformulating.

The Challenges: Heat, Light, pH and Oxygen 

Mark Caporale, president of Caporale Consulting (www.caporaleconsulting.com) in California, works with both global beverages developers as well as start-ups to formulate stable beverages. “Replacing FD&C (Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act) colors is not easily obtainable. Even when natural colors can be identified, there are often processing issues.” For example, natural oranges that are beta-carotene based (contained in carrots), for example, have a tendency to form ringing and floating on top of the beverage. This can be affected by product shear in processing as well as the presence of alcohols, often found in flavors, in the formula. Natural greens (chlorophyll based) are particularly difficult, in that they look terrific initially, but are very sensitive to light and oxygen, turning an unappealing brown over time. (In Europe, sodium copper chloraphyllan is approved for use as a color, providing greater stability.) Some colors are particularly susceptible to oxygen. This can be mitigated to some extent by processing to remove residual oxygen, and choosing packaging like PET that doesn’t breathe easily, Caporale explained.

While oxygen, light and heat are issues, one of the biggest challenges comes with the low pH inherent in most beverages (generally below 3.8), and the fact that colors change at different pHs. So Concorde grape juice, for instance, which provides a nice bluepurple at a pH of 4 or 4.2, will move to a red-purple at pH of 3.6-3.8. Kentuckybased DDW (www.ddwcolor.com) claims to have found the “purple sweet spot,” according to vice president of branding and marketing development Campbell Barnum, describing the spot where purple color actually is stable at lower pH conditions.

Additional challenges occur when you add vitamins, minerals, herbs and other particulates. Reactions between the color pigments themselves and other ingredients can cause these pigments to drop out of solution, depending on processing conditions. “It’s why shelf-life testing is so critical in beverage development,” said Caporale.

Natural Color Sources: Fruits and Vegetables 

According to Per Pihlsgard, senior beverage specialist at New York-based GNT USA, Inc. (www.gntusa.com), “Ideal colors come from using a mixture of different fruits and vegetables to improve the stability. For instance, we might use a blend of black carrots and berries together.” GNT grows fruits and vegetables for the purpose of concentrating them down for their colors, and are therefore able to manage quality from the source. Reds might come from vegetables like black carrots or radishes. Yellows can come from carrots or pumpkins. Purple sweet potato is a vibrant hot pink color.

The Elusive Blue—Stick Packs, Anyone?

Despite the different colors available in the U.S., replacing my son’s favorite Blue No. 1 in RTD (ready to drink) beverages is still a huge challenge. One color that comes close is Gardenia Blue is used in Asia, but is not approved here in the U. S. However, in April, 2014, the FDA approved GNT’s petition to use spirulina, a blue-green algae, as a color additive in beverage mixes and powders, expanding its use beyond candy and confections. While spirulina can’t be used in RTD beverages, it can be used in dry mix canisters and stick packs. In my ongoing search for suitable beverage options, I’ve been appalled by the lack of shelf space devoted to stick packs in my local Whole Foods, vs. conventional grocery. Someone has a huge opportunity to introduce stick packs that are added to bottled water to become vibrant and colorful. DDW’s Senior Application Scientist Jody Renner-Nantz encourages companies to look at blending spirulina with other naturally derived colors, to achieve purple and green hues for these types of drinks.

Perhaps there is hope for a natural blue raspberry, grape and lime Kool-Aid product yet!

Beverly Emerson is President of Olive Tree Product Development, a pragmatic innova- tion firm that works with food and nutrition executives to transform product concepts into packaged foods and dietary supple- ments, translate consumer insights into meaningful brands, and turn ideas into successful go-to-market strategies. Visit www.olivetree-pd.com, bev@olivetree-pd.com

Albion Minerals®