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With taste in mind, alternative zero-calorie sweeteners find a foothold

October 18, 2018

Cutting back on sugar is front and center for many health-conscious consumers. According to a recent International Food and Ingredients Council study, three in four consumers say they’re trying to limit or avoid sugars.

But they still want sweetness. As the focus on sugar reduction intensifies, Cargill’s new EverSweet™ sweetener, which is made with the same sweet parts that are found in the stevia leaf, offers a new choice for zero-calorie food and beverages.

The market for low- and zero-calorie sweeteners, historically dominated by artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose and saccharin, has seen a rise in alternatives like stevia and erythritol. These alternatives are gaining popularity in healthy snacks, soft drinks, dairy products and cereals to name a few.

“Taste is critical when determining the success of a sweetener,” said Andy Ohmes, global stevia business leader for Cargill. “Whether it’s used in making yogurt or ice cream, consumers still have a certain expectation of sweetness. You have to maintain great taste.”

Steviol glycosides, found in the leaves of the stevia plant, have been used for hundreds of years to sweeten foods naturally. Two of the best-tasting steviol glycosides, known as Reb M and Reb D, react with sweetness receptors on the tongue like sugar does, but without calories or blood sugar spikes. 

However, Reb M and Reb D make up just a tiny fraction of the leaf – less than 1 percent. It would require far too much land and produce far too much waste to grow enough stevia plants to produce these steviol glycosides in commercial quantities.

That’s where the age-old process of fermentation comes in. Cargill’s fermentation process for EverSweet requires a simple sugar source, which can be sourced from sugar cane or corn, and a specially crafted baker’s yeast to produce Reb M and Reb D at a commercial scale. Producing EverSweet via fermentation uses significantly less land than producing it by growing acres of plants, making it a viable, more sustainable, zero-calorie alternative to sugar.

The same is true for erythritol, a zero-calorie sweetener that is found in many fruits, including watermelons and pears. It looks and tastes much like sugar, and can be produced in commercial quantities through fermentation.

Both products can fit a variety of health goals, from a diabetic diet to simply reducing sugar and calories.

“Ultimately, we want to give consumers options when they want to reduce sugar,” Ohmes said. “We know people are going to want sweet things. It’s about providing them something that satisfies their desire for sweetness and zero calories without compromising taste.”