In conversation with Sweegen: Formulating with stevia, hemp extracts and CBD

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Picture (stevia leaf istockphoto-HandmadePictures)
Picture (stevia leaf istockphoto-HandmadePictures)

Related tags: Sweegen, Cbd, Hemp, Cannabis, Sweeteners

Hemp-derived CBD is being added to everything from sparkling beverages and drink mixes to chocolate, and given the sugar reduction trend, many of these products also contain stevia. But what are some of the formulation challenges when you combine two ingredients that can both present flavor challenges?

Shari Mahon is SVP application technology at Sweegen​, which makes stevia sweeteners via a bioconversion process that begins with stevia leaf extracts and then uses enzymes from yeast to convert them to Reb M +D, the most sugar-like tasting steviol glycosides.

Given the high level of interest in formulating with hemp-derived CBD, Sweegen has developed a bespoke product line – Bestevia Cannabis e+ - that combines its Bestevia stevia sweetener with natural flavors that mask the off notes associated with CBD, which can be bitter, says Mahon.

“I have not worked with a CBD source to date that did not need some additional bitterness or off note flavor masking for mainstream distribution.   

“We first build the foundation of the product with the stevia sweetener, which ​helps cover the bitterness of the CBD, and then we address any off tastes or bitterness from the CBD utilizing our toolbox of proprietary natural flavor modulators that help mitigate bitterness, earthy or piney pungentnotes​.”

Pure CBD isolate is bitter, while full-spectrum hemp extracts contribute earthy, pungent notes

So is there a notable difference between the taste/flavor of broad/full spectrum hemp extracts, which contain a range of other cannabinoids and terpenes compared with pure CBD isolate?

Yes, says Mahon. “The broad/full spectrum extracts exhibit some earthy, bitter, and green pungent or piney notes, whereas pure CBD isolate has a much cleaner flavor profile, but still contributes bitterness.”

‘Dirty tasting’ low-quality hemp extracts

As for the various CBD products that Sweegen has worked with, there have been wide variations in flavor profile, she says, which can make life challenging.

“Our clients generally come to us with their CBD supplier already chosen and we start formulating the product around that particular CBD source.     

“We have reviewed many different CBD products and they vary in taste from higher purity extracts that are clean in flavor profile with only the bitterness to overcome, to lower quality extracts which are very ‘dirty tasting’ with a variety of undesirable flavor attributes to overcome in formulating.” 

Solvents and carriers

The off-tastes can come from both the CBD itself and the carrier or solvent systems manufacturers use to solubilize the CBD, she adds: “That is a key challenge when working with CBD. 

“For tinctures and beverages, the ideal CBD concentrate needs to be water soluble and provide no color or cloudiness when added to the product.  There are several companies who have great water-soluble CBD concentrates that provide clear, colorless and tasteless products on the market. 

“However, they still have the bitterness from the CBD and the solvent systems that we need to address.”

Beverages, tinctures, powdered drink mixes

So what kinds of CBD-related projects is Sweegen working on?

Right now, it's seeing the most activity in tinctures and beverages, explains Katharina Pueller, director of Sweegen’s natural sweetener business, who says all the same factors that apply to beverage formulation in general apply to CBD products, in that formulators want to reduce sugar, avoid GMOs and keep ingredients labels short and clean.

Overall, Sweegen is seeing the most activity in beverages, dairy, and nutritional products such as powdered products, meal replacements, bars and so on.

On the beverages front, while some firms are looking for zero calorie products, the sweet spot seems to be low sugar, in combination with a high intensity natural sweetener such as stevia. Sweegen is also seeing a trend towards trying to eliminate erythritol from formulations because it doesn't have a very consumer-friendly name, she adds.

"We're also seeing more applications with allulose​,​ which works well in combination with stevia, particularly in ice cream."

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