The word ‘game-changer’ is used so liberally these days that Cargill has not given in to the temptation to employ it here. But ViaTech - its new range of stevia-based sweeteners - opens up completely new territory for food and beverage formulators, enabling them to slash sugar by 75% - and in some cases 100% - without compromising taste, claims the sweeteners giant, which is launching ViaTech at Expo West today.
In the past couple of years, many 'next-generation' stevia-based solutions have been launched promising to tackle the lingering bitter and licorice notes that creep in as stevia is added and sugar is reduced, Scott Fabro, global business development director, Cargill Corn Milling North America told FoodNavigator-USA.
But the fact remains that once you get beyond a 50% sugar reduction, these off notes become more and more pronounced, says Fabro, who claims to have hit the jackpot with ViaTech, which he says can deliver optimal taste in the most challenging formulations - including diet cola and root beer - without breaking the bank.
“30% is fine, 50% is a lot harder. Beyond that, customers were telling us that they were still getting these off notes. Flavor modifiers were moving the needle a bit, but not enough. Now we can get to 50%, 60%, 75% or in some applications, 100%, and keep the clean taste.”
The interesting thing is that it’s not intuitive at all
ViaTech has been developed using Cargill’s proprietary taste prediction model, enabling it to “predict in a precise way the right combination of steviol glycosides to deliver optimal sweet taste”, says Fabro, who says the secret to success is “not about finding a single steviol glycoside that works for everything”.
He adds: “We characterized each glycoside - there are almost 40 in the stevia leaf - looking at attributes such as sweetness, bitterness and licorice, individually, and in combination, to find exactly what combinations work.
“The interesting thing is that it’s not intuitive at all. Put two glycosides together that you would expect [based on their individual profile] to work well and you could get more sweetness or more bitterness. The same things happen when you change the ratios.”
Their first reaction is, you must have added some bitter blockers, some flavor modifiers. But we haven’t
So what kind of feedback has Cargill had from the trade?
Says Fabro: “Our customers are really excited about this, but it’s been a collaborative effort from the start. We haven’t been working in a vacuum, there are active projects in all application areas using ViaTech underway from beverages to dairy and tabletop sweeteners.
“ViaTech performs incredibly well in challenging applications such as root beer, where in the past, as companies have reduced the sugar or HFCS and added stevia, they have got this thinner, watery kind of taste and unwanted flavor notes.
“When people taste products [formulated with ViaTech] their first reaction is, you must have added some bitter blockers, some flavor modifiers. But we haven’t.”
Taste is king, but economics are equally important
ViaTech also enables the Minneapolis-based firm to improve taste performance at high usage levels, creating formulations that offer a “sensible” cost-in-use, particularly for high-volume applications such as carbonated soft drinks, he says.
“Cargill designed ViaTech to deliver an optimal sweet taste at high use levels, which has been a limitation with previous stevia-based products. Taste is king, but economics are equally important.”
That said, taste, rather than price, has probably been the biggest reason why there have not been more big beverage brands launching products with significant reductions in sugar, he says, noting that stevia prices have in any case come down significantly in the past five years and have now “bottomed out”.
In fact, he predicts, they may go up again as demand continues to grow.
The ViaTech range only contains glycosides from the stevia leaf, not from a fermentation process
But aren't the minor steviol glycosides still pretty pricey given that they are found in much lower concentrations in the leaf than the best-known glycoside Reb-A?
“We’re working on agronomic programs that produce stevia leaves with higher levels of minor glycosides [Reb D concentrations in stevia leaves are typically between 0.21% and 0.5% and Reb M between 0.04% and 0.1%, whereas Reb A is typically 8-10% by dry weight]," says Fabro. "We're also working with Evolva on producing steviol glycosides more cost effectively via a fermentation process.
"However, these are all longer-term projects. The ViaTech range only contains glycosides from the stevia leaf."