The European Commission earlier this year approved Sweegen’s non-GMO Signature Bestevia Rebaudioside M (Reb M) for use in food and beverages. Reb M is one of many steviol glycosides found in the leaves of the stevia plant. It offers a sweet taste close to that of sugar and is free of the aftertaste associated with Reb A, a stevia-based sweetener commonly used in F&B formulation.
In a demonstration of its Reb M technology, the California-based company revealed zero-sugar products including peach iced tea with just two calories per 250ml serving, and a non-alcoholic Mojito cocktail.
The drinks were infused with L-theanine, an amino acid shown to relax the mind without inducing drowsiness. “L-Theanine has no taste or colour and supports stress reduction,” said Kerani Kirakos, Sweegen Application Technology Specialist EMEA, meaning you can have a drink and get the relaxation qualities without the next-day after-effects.
The company believes the low-to-no sector is an exciting and rising trend being fuelled by a younger generation seeking indulgence without the sugar and without the hangover.
"Consumers are looking for a nutritional edge when indulging," added Sweegen Head of Public Relations and Communications Ana Arakelian.
To that end, in the product demonstration the company also unveiled zero-sugar dark chocolate with functional benefits and chocolate and coconut protein bites. The latter product included whey protein and oats for a healthy indulgent snack.
“Once again, this goes back to the point that consumers want something sweet, while also wanting something nutritious,” said Kirakos.
"It seems its very popular now to add adaptogens to bars and even chocolate,” added Arakelian. “In addition to the antioxidants in the dark chocolate, you have the adaptogens to help with stress reduction. I think especially in pandemic times, people are interested in indulgence, but they don't want the calories and they want that nutritional edge." Functional ingredients, she added, help to produce “a multi-functional product that gives you nutritional benefits along with sweetness without the sugar”.
Alternatives claim better sustainability credentials over sugar
Sweegen also sees sweeteners as solution to sugar's environment footprint. Sweegen’s Reb M is a sweetener molecule produced by proprietary bioconversion technology. Sweegen’s other stevia ingredients are produced this way as well.
The bioconversion process is key, the company said, because this proprietary technology produces a clean stevia ingredient that is closest to the stevia leaf. This technology is sustainable as it reduces carbon, water and land footprint with scaling up stevia molecules, claimed Sr. Director Business Development EMEA Michael Halvorsen.
"Sugar has a high carbon, water and land footprint. With our technology we are aiming to lower that dramatically for our customers who can claim sustainability improvements on their packaging. Outside taste, this is one of the drivers to our success.”
Investing in local stevia production
Sweegen is also commercialising Reb M at its manufacturing facility in Europe. Producers in the region “want to have local production and this is something we're investing heavily in,” revealed Halvorsen.
The company also noted a greater acceptance of a combination of ingredients that will perform the functional and sensory roles of sugar. These combinations will likely also change depending on category and specific requirements.
"What happens with sugar reduction is as soon as you reduce sugar, you're heightening all the other unwanted flavours like bitterness, acidity,” elaborated Kirakos. “That's why when you reduce sugar you need to look at all the other different flavour aspects. If you reduce sugar in chocolate for example, you're going to naturally increase the bitterness coming from the cocoa. To deal with this we tailor our solutions to help mask those bitter flavours with our sweeteners and we use different flavours that are going to help with bitter blocking and bring everything together so you don't get one hit of sweeteners.”