Alex Eapen, PhD, principal scientist in Cargill’s scientific and regulatory affairs department spoke with FoodNavigator-USA on the what the import is of the recent recognition by the Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) of the United States of the GRAS status of Cargill’s Zerose erythritol for use as a flavor in non-alcoholic beverages. It opens doors for Zerose, Eapen said, but does not necessarily break ground for erythritol as an ingredient per se.
“When you look historically at how erythritol has been used in the industry while there clearly have been groups using it as a bulk sweetener in the larger industry, flavor modification is not an entirely new usage for erythritol,” he said.
History with an old ingredient
Erythritol has been known for more than 150 years, having been isolated as a chemical as far back as 1848. Eapen said Cargill’s history with the ingredient spans almost a decade, and the company has learned a lot in the process. The company has successfully paired the ingredient with Reb A from stevia for its popular Truvia line of zero calorie sweeteners, and the company markets Zerose on its own as a bulk sweetener.
But what of its flavor masking properties? Eapen said that is a newer take for the company.
“What we learned as we evaluated erythritol with a lemon lime base or with a tea base is that there are certainly advantages to using it as a flavor modifier,” Eapen said.
“We have seen that it can have great benefit for beverages containing caffeine and vitamins, things that have a bitter, off taste,” said global marketing programs manager Pam Stauffer. This opens the door for the use of Zerose in a wide range of energy beverages and shots, a category that seems constantly on the lookout for ways to make its products taste better. 5 Hour Energy has done a major reformulation based on improving its flavors, and marketers of other energy products have made a major part of their living in recent years claiming their offerings taste better than 5 Hour Energy, which set a fairly low bar for flavor in the category to being with.
“We definitely see an opportunity there, and we see growth for erythritol overall, particularly in beverages, confectionary products and tabletop sweeteners,” Stauffer said.
“It definitely opens up some markets for us,” Eapen said.
The natural question
The FEMA GRAS approval means that manufacturers can call out the ingredient as a “natural flavor” on the label, without having to use the name “erythritol,” whose chemical ring could potentially be a turnoff with some consumers. Hooking “natural” up with erythritol is a claim that Cargill has vigorously defended, even if the company has found it expedient to settle certain class action lawsuits over that usage. The ingredient is made by the fermentation of glucose by the yeast Moniliella pollinis. The issue that cropped up in a court case in Hawaii is the number and type of processing steps the company goes through to get the glucose feed stock from corn and to arrive at the finished ingredients. Minimal processing, the plaintiffs argued, is implied in the claim “natural.” The result of the case could be seen as a somewhat expensive standoff as the Cargill agreed to a settlement fund but will continue to use a natural claim (the company says its erythritol is made from “natural ingredients”) that will include an asterisk that directs consumers to its website for more information on how the process works.
Moving forward with EFSA
The use of Zerose as a flavoring agent caps out at a 1.25% inclusion rate in the US in non alcoholic beverages, Eapen said. In the EU, the European Food Safety Authority responded to a dossier submitted by Cargill with a positive opinion for the sweetener's use as a flavoring agent. EFSA set an inclusion level of 1.6% for this application. Cargill had previously gotten a authorization for the use of erythritol in foods.
Another benefit of erythritol is its easy digestibility, Eapen said. It has long been known that much of the erythritol ingested passes into the blood stream and is excreted through the urine, leaving only a small amount to pass into the lower intestines where gastric distress is mostly likely to occur. The company confirmed with result with a study earlier this year that supported the EFSA flavor filing that showed the ingredient was as well tolerated by children as was the sugar in a sugar-sweetened control beverage.