Carbohydrate innovation: Tomorrow’s sweeteners

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09 Oct 2017 --- Growing calls for sugar reduction are leading to development and innovation in the carbohydrate space, where new sweeteners are being discovered and marketed at an ever-greater frequency. At the same time, more specialized diets such as low GI and low CARB have been gaining attention in new product marketing. One of the latest trending diets is low FODMAP (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols), which is suitable for those with an irritable bowel.

Fred Brouns, who is Emeritus Professor of Innovation Healthy Nutrition, Biomedical Researcher and Nutrition Physician at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, has been a leading international expert on carbohydrates for many years. Brouns is a registered Biomedical Researcher, a Food Scientist and a highly respected global speaker on nutrition and healthy eating, functional foods/supplements, sports nutrition and health food innovation management. His industry experience has included long spells at Novartis, Cerestar and Cargill.

Brouns spoke with NutritionInsight about the low FODMAP diet, challenges and innovation in the sweetener sector and the role of functional carbohydrates.

Can the low FODMAP diet go mainstream?
The low FODMAP diet has been receiving significant media attention over the past months, with a number of suppliers touting the “FODMAP friendly” credentials of their products. However, despite this attention, Brouns asserts that the options for low FODMAP moving into the mainstream are limited.

“The low FODMAP diet is designed for people who suffer from intestinal complaints due to the gas formation caused by the gut flora metabolism, which, when suffering from an irritable bowel, is perceived as very unpleasant,” Brouns notes. 

There is significant evidence that people who suffer from IBS perceive fewer symptoms and an improved overall quality of life after switching to a low FODMAP diet. However, this is a relatively small part of the population, according to Brouns. Additionally, comprehensive dietary guidance is essential when following a low FODMAP diet. 

“That is because many of the dietary fibers that are good for our gut belong among the FODMAPs. So, if you also eliminate fibers from the diet you will run into problems for normal gut function and gut health in the long term,” Brouns explains. “This is also a reason why it can never go mainstream: first, you need a good diagnosis. Second, you need personal dietary guidance.”

Next-generation sweeteners present challenges
The market offers a wide range of sweeteners at present; these include caloric sweeteners, the sugar types. It also offers non-caloric sweeteners, synthetic high-intensity sweeteners and natural high-intensity sweeteners. Stevia belongs to the latter category, Brouns notes.

“Drinks that are sweetened with high-intensity non-caloric sweeteners behave in the same way as normal water, with one additional advantage: it appears that if people who want to avoid sugars, but like sweetness, consume just tap water, they try to meet their sweet needs with other sweet foods and that leads to caloric intake,” Brouns observes. “If people drink a beverage that is artificially sweetened, then their need for sweet is satisfied. This helps them to refrain from consuming other sugary foods.”

Click to EnlargeAccordingly, looking at overall weight control, there are signs that people who decide to consume beverages that are sweetened with non-caloric sweeteners instead of regular soft drinks do better in weight control management than those who exchange the fizzy drinks for plain water, Brouns adds.

However, when it comes to next-generation sweeteners that will follow stevia, Brouns believes that there are fundamental issues: “A sweetener such as stevia has a slight taste effect, a bit like licorice. Sucrose has a very bland sweet taste, and there is no other sweetener that is 100 percent similar to sucrose. So that makes it difficult: compared to sucrose, many people feel that the taste of most alternative sweeteners is less good.”

“It is a challenge to come up with better ones,” Brouns says. “You might still say, ‘Drink water,’ and that would be good advice. However, in practice, it does not always seem to work, simply because many people really like sweet and want to find it somewhere.”

Sugar taxes or sugar content labeling in the US
Calls for taxes on sugar content and a myriad of labeling changes have been proposed in countries such as the US over the past years. However, sugar taxes on their own are misguided, Brouns believes.

“There is no scientific basis to justify taxes on sugars in isolation,” Brouns comments. “I would say for sugars in beverages, there is abundant observational evidence that frequent consumption is associated with weight gain, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, no doubt about that. But if you look at total carbohydrate intake, of which sugar is part, then you don’t find the same relationships.”

“So, ‘sugars in drinks?’ Yes. ‘Total sugar?’ No. That would indicate that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is one of a cluster of lifestyle factors that have detrimental health effects,” Brouns asserts. “If we put a tax on sugar in general, we indicate that sugar is the prime cause of obesity, and that’s certainly not true.”

“Personally, I truly think this will not solve the problem of overweight and associated diseases. In fact, in many countries, sugar consumption has been declining over the last few years, whereas overweight prevalence has further increased,” he adds. This, according to Brouns, is a clear sign that sugar in isolation is not the prime cause of obesity.

“Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is related to poor lifestyle. Changing multiple unhealthy lifestyle factors, of which frequent consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, is just one factor, is the best way forward,” Brouns says.

Role of the ingredients industry in tackling issues
So what about the ingredients industry’s role with regard to health issues and sugars? In this regard, Brouns believes the industry is in a tough position.

Click to Enlarge“It’s a delicate thing. If you say, ‘Cut out the sugars massively,’ then sales will decline because there is a part of the population that likes sweetness and doesn’t care about health,” Brouns says. “These people drink sugar-sweetened beverages and eat the cereals with the highest levels of added sugars simply because they are crispy and sweet. They will not stop doing that, so if you cut down on sugars, you will lose sales because they will buy other products that are high in sugars.”

“Of course, companies battle that. Whether [cutting down on sugar] makes sense in terms of business, the answer is: ‘No.’ But in terms of health it would make sense, so the best thing that companies can do is gradually decrease added sugar content of beverages and foods – small quantities regularly, every year, but consistently. At the same time, they should take care that the calories taken out by the sugars are not replaced by calories from alternative carbohydrate sources or fat,” Brouns advises.

In terms of marketing, Brouns gives the example of a message he gave to Coca-Cola once: “Its Santa Claus should not hand out the full-sugar cola beverage to parents with little children in their arms; he should hand out a Coke Zero beverage because that sets the scene and the intentions. I don’t see this enough in the market.” 

Encouraging R&D: Strong potential for fermented beverages
Lowering energy density is important to the food industry, Brouns says: “We can reduce the calorie density of foods by increasing the dietary fiber and protein content and by doing that you also get better nutritious products.”

“In terms of the beverage industry, I think there is a strongly developing niche area of fermented drinks that may go mainstream in the future. Such drinks have fewer sugars because these have been fermented,” Brouns adds.

“What I see generally is that the [industry’s] developments to reduce sugars are very slow,” notes Brouns. “As a matter of fact, it has been noted in social media that big companies take many years to reduce sugars by only 10 or 15 percent, due to their fears of losing sales. A regular stepwise reduction, however, may lead to a much better result in only a few years.”

Brouns points out that rather than creating novel ways of replacing sugars, a cultural shift in what the population as a whole perceives as sweet or palatable would be more beneficial.

“I think the best approach would be to reduce the overall sweetness of foods and beverages available so that you get a new generation with less of a sweet tooth,” Brouns says.

“Once you get away from mother’s milk (which is very sweet) and you get introduced to – and start to like – foods and beverages that are low in sweetness, you may keep that for the rest of your life,” Brouns adds. “If mother’s milk or bottled milk is being followed by foods and beverages high in sugars, you run the risk of looking for a lot of sweets for the rest of your life, and you will pay the price.”

A reduction in the amount of cravings for sweet foods calls for a cultural shift in eating habits, according to Brouns.

“If very young children have less access to a lot of sweets, they will eat fewer sweet products in the future. Less access means either fewer sweet foods in the supermarket and vending machines, or better parental guidance and control. I think the world needs both,” Brouns concludes.

By Lucy Gunn and Paul Creasy

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