Texture is Biggest Challenge for Sugar Reduction in Sweetened Beverages

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07 Nov 2016 --- The soft drinks industry has been working for many years towards low and no-sugar reformulations with a whole host of new product launches in 2016 and more planned for the future, as companies and manufacturers continue on their quest to meet sugar reduction targets set for 2018 and beyond. 

Tesco have announced today that they are to cut more sugar out of their own brands of soft drinks as part of a reformulation strategy to offer healthier alternatives.

According to Innova Market Insights data, product launch activity with either a “low sugar,” “no added sugar” or “sugar free” claim, leads the way for soft drinks. In fact, the percentage of product launches per category in the soft drinks space grew from 14.6% in 2011 to 18.1% in 2015, which is a rise of 3.5%. 

Speaking during a webinar last week, Nick Henson, who is Senior Technical Manager, Food Solutions at Covance, highlighted four key considerations, when it comes to product reformulation for sugar reduction: Taste, Flavor, Texture and Calorie Management.  

Calorie management and obesity is the key driver behind government approach in this area.  The key factor in sugar reduction is that taste is the most important thing when it comes to beverages and the deliverance of the product, says Henson. 

“That basic sweet taste of sugar actually controls the balance across other basic tastes,” he explains. “If you have an inherent bitterness or acidity, as you alter the sugar level not only will you adjust the sweetness but you will adjust the perception of the bitterness and the acid. This is an important consideration when it comes to sweetness, so what we are finding is that you might need to adjust other elements of the beverage in order to deliver a balanced product,” notes Henson. 

“Sweetened products in nature will provide energy,” Henson says. "It’s an inbuilt mechanism to seek out energy sources, the interesting factor here is that if we are providing consumers with sweet products which do not provide energy will they subconsciously seek out energy sources form other elements in their diet.” 

“Sweetness balancing in soft drinks is the easiest task, because there is such a wide range of materials you can use. For flavor, there are so many good materials available that can emulate what consumers are familiar with,” he explains. 

He noted that texture is the most challenging: “It is hard to simulate exactly the texture that sucrose provides in sweetened beverages. Some of the gums and fibers do give viscosity, but it’s not quite the same as sucrose. If you are looking for a very high reduction in sweetness, texture is most the difficult challenge.”

Henson also explains the interest in natural sweeteners: “Our US division has been working on monk fruit for quite some years, it is legal in the US but it’s not legal in Europe, however, it does have some restrictions when it comes to reformulation using monk fruit,” he continues, “It is not particularly sweet compared to the other intense sweeteners, it has a different flavor.” 

Interestingly, there are not any known submissions for monk fruit by EFSA, which is surprising and according to Henson that would suggest that it is not on the horizon for Europe for some time. 

He adds: “The key benefit of monk fruit is its natural status, the big question is what benefit does it provide over stevia? So, there probably isn’t enough knowledge in Europe at this moment.” 

This marketplace obviously presents a major opportunity for all high potency sweeteners. But at the same time as these reformulation efforts, consumers are increasingly focusing on ingredients of natural origin, particularly stevia. In fact soft drinks accounted for 20% of the latest launches tracked by Innova Market Insights that featured stevia.

Other natural sweeteners are also increasingly being used in the focus on clean labeling, often in combination with sugar and other sweeteners such as erythritol. Honey and agave are proving particularly popular, and there is also growing interest in the use of allulose. 

In terms of agave and reducing glycemic index (GI), agave has been used quote successfully, Henson says.  “We have seen it become a commercial material over the past few years, it is naturally derived, very useful in reducing GI, I would imagine as it has a lower GI that glucose.”

Earlier this year, sweetener expert John Fry claimed beverages formulated with only natural sweeteners could appear in the US market in the next two to three years. 

Ongoing concerns about obesity and sugar intake have driven interest in reduced sugar and diet drinks in recent years. Portugal has become the latest country to introduce a tax on sugary soft drinks, with government plans to bring in a levy next year. The Portuguese sugar tax will follow similar laws in France, Mexico, Hungary and forthcoming legislation in the UK and South Africa where there is heavy opposition to the plans.

In the meantime, the rest of the world keeps a close eye on Mexico as a leading protagonist of the sugar tax on soft drinks, some in the country are calling for an increase on the levy. A roughly 10% nationwide tax on sugar-sweetened beverages was introduced in Mexico in January 2014. In recent months there has been much debate over whether or not Mexico’s sugar tax has led to a fall in obesity statistics, particularly the direct impact the levy has had on consumers and the market.

The WHO recently came out in officially encouraging governments to impose legislative measures by taxing sugary drinks. It says that rolling out laws around the world would curtail sugar consumption and impact on diabetes rates. Fiscal policies where at least a 20 percent increase is introduced to the retail price of sugary beverages would result in “proportional reductions in consumption,” according to the report, published on October 11. So sugar reduction and particularly the debate about the benefits of a sugar tax in tackling obesity is on the product development radar.

As a result governments have started to intervene more actively with promotional campaigns on sugar reduction and the introduction of “sugar taxes” in some cases. In the US, voters in four American cities will face that question next week as they decide whether the sugary beverages sold in their neighborhoods should be taxed. Initiatives to tax the sale of sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages are on upcoming ballots in San Francisco, Oakland and Albany, California; and Boulder, Colorado.

Some proponents say the taxes would raise prices by exactly the amount of the tax, encouraging consumers to cut down on soda and improve their health. But research shows that prices might rise by only half that amount - or even less, says a Cornell University economist who studied a similar tax imposed in Berkeley, California.

“Our research suggests that these taxes may be only partially passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices,” says John Cawley, professor of policy analysis and management and of economics. His research in Berkeley found that prices there rose by only 43.1 percent of the tax.

This limited price increase is consistent with consumers being sensitive to prices, Cawley clarifies. If consumers were insensitive to price, then suppliers would shift all of the tax to consumers. “So, the limited price increase resulting from the tax should not be seen as a failure but as evidence that consumers are responding to the policy,” Cawley said.

The tax in Berkeley was the country's first on sugar-sweetened beverages for public health purposes. It was seen as a bellwether for similar taxes now on the November ballot in the California cities of Albany, Oakland and San Francisco as well as in Boulder, Colorado, which takes place tomorrow (November 8).

Cawley's research, “The Pass-Through of Taxes on Sugar-Sweetened Beverages to Retail Prices: The Case of Berkeley, California,” was published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. His co-author is David Frisvold of the University of Iowa.

The Berkeley tax, which is still in effect, requires soda distributors pay the city 1 cent per ounce whenever they deliver soda to a Berkeley store. That translates to an extra 20 cents for a 20-ounce bottle, and $1.44 for a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans. As in Berkeley, the tax in Oakland and Albany, California would be 1 cent per ounce. The tax in San Francisco and Boulder would be 2 cents per ounce.

Philadelphia has already passed a 1.5-cent per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened and also, interestingly, diet drinks. The tax is not as a public health measure but simply a way to raise revenue. That tax is slated to take effect Jan. 1, 2017.

Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages are a step in the right direction, Cawley said, if the goal is to reduce the societal costs associated with diet-related health problems such as obesity and diabetes. But the design could be improved, he said.

Narrow taxes like the one on soda allow consumers to switch to untaxed energy-dense foods. A better alternative is a broader tax that would include all high-calorie, low-nutrition foods, such as candy bars and cookies. And ideally it would take effect across the country, he said. “In general, it's harder to avoid a tax when it's nationwide than when it's just in one city.”

by Elizabeth Kenward

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