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Nature serves as a source of healthier sugar alternatives

Article-Nature serves as a source of healthier sugar alternatives

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From honey truffle to precision fermented plant-based peptides, brands are replacing traditional sugar with natural alternatives sourced from nature.

As interest in holistic health and healthy indulgence grows, consumers are looking for new ways to enjoy sugary snacks, without impacting their health. Reducing the amount of sugar in food and drink products is one-way manufacturers can achieve this.

The challenge for food producers lies in preserving the same sweet taste that consumers desire, while cutting back on conventional sugar content.

Consumers view natural sugars as healthier

Survey data from FMCG Gurus reveals that for 64% of consumers, low sugar and sugar free are the top two factors determining the healthiness of products. In the UK, 65% of consumers are worried about the amount of sugar they consume, while 68% would like to see their favourite brands producing more reduced sugar options, Mintel data shows.

In addition to healthiness, naturalness is a key consideration for consumers of low- and no-sugar alternatives. Survey data from FMCG Gurus shows that 72% of consumers believe natural sweeteners are healthier than sugars, yet just over a third (35%) consciously seek out these products.

“While natural sweeteners are acceptable, the new consumer ideal and perfect scenario for manufacturers seems to be to maximise the appeal of a product without using any additional sweetening ingredients,” said Maria Mascaraque, global industry manager at Euromonitor.

“Consumers want reassurance that sweetness is derived from intrinsic ingredients as far as possible so the ‘no added sugar’ positioning is valued and increasingly embraced by manufacturers.”

Fermenting fungi to produce a super-sweet sugar alternative

US-based food ingredient company MycoTechnology have developed a natural ingredient derived from mushrooms that is more than one thousand times sweeter than conventional sugar. After years of extensively searching to find a mushroom that had a sweet, rather than umami, flavour, the company came across the honey truffle. Sourced from various locations across Eastern Europe, the mushroom is believed to be one of the only sweet tasting fungi currently known to man.

“There are over two million mushrooms out there in the world. We believe there's more than twice that that have still not been discovered,” Alan Han, CEO and co-founder of MycoTechnology told Fi Global Insights.

To create the sweetener, the company identified and sequenced the genome of the sweet-tasting protein contained in the mushroom and extracted it to create an isolate. Next, the protein underwent a fermentation process with yeast to produce a sugar alternative with a taste profile that is one to two thousand times sweeter than sugar.

“We can leverage our manufacturing capacity in Denver to scale this process and start making the specific protein that we need, without having to worry about sourcing truffle. This is a win-win scenario because you have a natural molecule that was taken from the wild, and we can replicate that in a lab setting and industrialise the process to create an ingredient that can come to the mainstream food beverage, as well as many other applications,” said Ranjan Patnaik, chief technology officer at MycoTechnology.

Appealing to the clean-label trend, the fermentation process behind the product uses only GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe)-certified ingredients and does not require chemicals or additives.

“We’re making sure that we're not introducing anything into the process that will not be considered clean,” said Han.

The sweetener, which is currently undergoing regulatory approval in various countries including the US, will first be available in a concentrated syrup form. However, the company also have plans to create it in a powder form, like regular sugar, to accommodate various applications, such as confectioneries, bakeries, beverages, and more.

“We're focused on bringing any truffle sweetener to the market as quickly as we can. And we're very excited about that opportunity,” Han said.

Compared to other natural sweeteners such as stevia, MycoTechnolgy’s honey truffle sweetener is significantly sweeter (1,500 – 2,500 times) and does not have any aftertaste.

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Scaling sweet plant-based peptides via precision fermentation

Also tapping into the demand for natural sweeteners, Chilean biotech startup Naturannova has developed a zero-calorie, plant-based protein peptide using precision fermentation that replicates the sweetness of sugar in food and drink applications. Available in powder or liquid format, the ingredient named Sweet Protein +, is a specific amino acid sequence found in an edible plant protein.

According to Antonella De Lazzarri, Naturannova founder and chief business officer (CBO), what makes the protein unique is the fact that it can only be traced from its original vegetable source, not found in nature alone.

The zero-calorie sweetener, which has a low glycaemic index value and is ten times sweeter than other sweeteners like stevia with no bitter after taste, is currently being used in dairy and flavoured water applications. Hoping to scale production of the ingredient globally in future, the company is awaiting EFSA approval in Europe and according to De Lazzari, is on the way to getting GRAS status from the FDA.

Stevia delivers on naturalness but falls short on taste  

Since its approval in Europe a decade ago, stevia has remained the most popular naturally derived sweetener on the market. Around a third of consumers in Germany (31%), Italy (33%), and Spain (30%) consider stevia a ‘natural’ and ‘appealing’ (over 20%) ingredient, according to Mintel.

Yet when it comes to taste - the top purchase driver for 74% of soft drink consumers - the sugar substitute falls short due to its bitter aftertaste, according to Mintel. Data from FMCG Gurus shows that four in 10 consumers believe that products containing stevia are inferior in taste compared to those that contain natural sugar.

“Stevia can be very polarising because of the [bitter] aftertaste. This is an issue if you're a flavourist trying to make a food or beverage, as you’re continually fighting the sweetener […] you're putting in a sweetener to cover up the off notes but now the sweetener itself introduces an off note, so you have off notes fighting off notes,” said Han.

“By using a sweetener that has no aftertaste, you need less of it, you can get your application done faster, and you have a ‘better-for-you’ solution at the end to show on your ingredient list.”