'Natural' sweetener to take on synthetic market

Related tags Mcneil nutritionals Sucralose Sweeteners

Swiss Research believes it has created the "holy grail" of
sweeteners, a natural alternative to the synthetic varieties
frequently lambasted by the media, it officially announced on
Tuesday, Philippa Nuttall reports.

The company, part of the Health Sciences Group, is heralding Shugr as "the world's first truly natural, zero-calorie, diabetic-safe sweetener"​ and claiming that it "tastes and cooks like sugar"​.

Swiss Research used Valentine's Day as its "coming out party"​, but the product has already been in retail and trade stores since December.

Shugr​ is said to be made from a proprietary blend of erythritol - a sugar alcohol that appears as an odorless white crystalline powder and is approximately 70 percent as sweet as sucrose and has a caloric value of 0.2 calories per gram - and tagatose to provide added sweetness and pre-biotic fiber to aid digestion.

The product is patent-pending and its ingredients carry a GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) designation.

Loren Miles, the company's CEO, explained to FoodNavigatorUSA.com that 99 percent of the sweetener is made from natural ingredients, meaning that the product is legally classified as natural.

"We are not stating that the product is all natural, we are legally natural,"​ said Miles.

In the current climate where food companies, particularly in the US, are working to avoid any potential risk of being sued and to make the most of the trend towards healthy, sugar-free products, Shugr with its natural label could be an attractive proposal. Miles said that he had already fielded enquiries from multi-national food and beverage companies and that within the next month or so would be in a position to start making some official announcements.

In his eyes, the only other sweetener on the market that could be classed as "natural" is stevia, but this ingredient is not certified GRAS.

However, it will have to prove to food manufacturers and consumers that natural is worth the extra cost. At $9.99 for 50 consumer servings, the ingredient is several times more expensive than its synthetic counterparts.

"An extra couple of pennies is not an issue for a consumer who is becoming aware of problems associated with synthetic products,"​ said Loren. He admitted that price will be a problem to some, but added that the price could come down if demand is considerable.

After a two year development program at a cost of over a $1 million, the product has been initially launched in the US, but should be available globally within the next few months.

"It has no after taste, a similar granular look and texture to sugar and a cool, light, sweet taste,"​ said Loren. He added that Shugr would caramalise like sugar when cooked, but at a lower heat, meaning that a product containing the ingredient would have to be cooked for slightly longer. However, he affirmed that foods made with Shugr would rise like sugar-based items, which he said wouldn't be the case with Splenda or Equal.

Splenda, a product of privately held McNeil Nutritionals, includes the regulator-approved synthetic sucralose, while Equal, made by Merisant is manufactured from the FDA-tested synthetic aspartame.

Loren said Swiss Research was not looking to profit from other companies' difficulties - namely the lawsuit between the US sugar association and McNeil Nutritionals, and the possible sucralose shortage forecast by some - but that the timing was now right to launch a natural product.

The word "natural" is highly emotive in the world of sweeteners. The US sugar association is currently embattled in a lawsuit against McNeil Nutritionals, the supplier of successful sweetener Splenda, following swiftly on from a complaint in November by US NutraSweet supplier Merisant.

This latest lawsuit, filed in December, hinges on "deceptive and/or misleading representations"​, made by the sweetener firm in "advertisements and marketing terminology"​ to consumers, says the association.

Merisant, the US maker of tabletop sweetener Equal and NutraSweet and a competitor to Splenda, alleged in November that the product's marketing slogan, "made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar,"​ had mislead consumers into thinking the artificial sweetener was "natural."

But McNeil Nutritionals asserts that sucralose starts off as pure cane sugar, and is then chemically altered in the manufacturing process to create a new compound with zero calories and 600 times sweeter than sugar.

The growth of the sweeteners industry looks strong on the back of rising health concerns, driving consumers towards sugar free products and food makers introduce zero-calorie or low-calorie sugar substitutes into their new product formulations.

Market analysts Freedonia predict growth of intensity sweeteners at around 8.3 percent year on year until 2008, with sales rising from a small base of $81m in 1998 to $189m in 2008.

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