In our head-long rush to compete in the mass market with artificial sweeteners like Splenda, is it possible that the natural products industry has overlooked an ingredient that could be the game changer we've been wanting?
I suppose it’s possible that I’ve been living under a rock for the last five years, but I just learned about a sugar alternative last week that makes stevia look like some back alley Elvis impersonator in Atlantic City.
At an ingredient “Try-a-thon” at SupplySide West 2011, led by Functional Ingredients’ own editorial advisor, Kanthe Shelke, PhD, I tasted my first erythritol-based sweetener.
The product is called Swerve. It contains zero calories, has no glycemic impact, and unlike xylitol or sorbitol it doesn’t wreak havoc in your gut. But the coolest thing about Swerve is that it’s a 1 to 1 sugar replacement—in every way. Not only does the sweetness match sugar 1 to 1, any recipe that calls for one cup of sugar, you can substitute one cup of Swerve. Literally any recipe. It bakes, dissolves, browns, even candies just like sugar. I had pecan pralines made with this stuff and they were just as crunchy, candied and decadent as any my friends from Louisiana have ever made for me. But these won’t spike my blood sugar or even give me cavities! There’s no bitter aftertaste. You can’t even tell this isn’t sugar. Seriously? Why is anyone using stevia?
Erythritol is a naturally occurring sweetener found in fruits, vegetables, cheeses and even yogurt. It’s often obtained through a culturing or fermentation process, which is the case with the erythritol in Swerve as well as ZSweet—one of the first zero-calorie sweeteners to blend erythritol with natural ingredients to create an easy-to-use, easy-to-digest alternative to sugar.
“Technically erythritol does have some challenges,” says Tim Avila, creator of ZSweet. “It’s not as sweet as sucrose (50-60% in most applications), is not as soluble as sugar and does have a GRAS upper limit of use in beverages (3.5%), and does have a realistic limit for gastric tolerance, even though this is much higher than any other ingredient in its class.” Avila has advocated for the use of erythritol as a “bulking base sweetener” but warns that it should be part of a blend.
When I asked Avila why people are so high on stevia when products like ZSweet and Swerve seem so much easier to use and better tasting, he said, “Industry tends to follow established patterns and since aspartame, sucralose and other small-molecule, high-intensity, zero-calorie sweeteners existed in the artificial category, then significant investment and development in corresponding 100% natural, zero-calorie ingredients followed suit.” He also noted that stevia is “already widely available in the supplement market and more importantly in global food and beverage markets, led by Japan where it first gained significant acceptance and commercial use.”
So maybe stevia is here to stay, but after tasting erythritol-sweetened pralines, this girl is putting her money on a different horse.