What’s the Next Big Beverage Sweetener?

The art and science of balancing flavor and health is no small feat

OAKBROOK TERRACE, Ill.-- Kevin Klock remembers when Sparkling ICE was first in hot demand—it was in his living room.

The CEO for Preston, Wash.-based Talking Rain Beverage Co., which manufactures the fast-growing Sparkling ICE brand, harkened back to family occasions in the Seattle area, when relatives made sure they secured a bottle of Sparkling ICE. This was the late 1980s, before the zero-calorie, flavored sparkling-water brand made a national splash

When Klock moved to California, neighborhood kids went to great lengths to get their hands on the product. “I had a cooler of Sparkling ICE in my garage,” Klock said during January’s Beverage Buzz webinar with Klock, hosted by Wells Fargo Securities, New York. Kids found their way into Klock’s garage to pilfer the cooler of refreshments, he said, putting a new twist on the concept of grab and go.

These days, Sparkling ICE garners a national following. Top retailers across grocery, mass and drug chains churn out as much as 100 cases a week in sales, said Klock, who added that the brand is charting its way into mass c-store-channel distribution thanks to a growing network of DSD affiliates.  

What’s the secret to Sparkling ICE’s growth? Artificial sweetener sucralose—derived from sugar—is an additive that’s helped Sparkling ICE achieve the high level of flavor and taste that Klock and his team sought out, along with zero calories and a refreshing kick. To many beverage-industry experts, sucralose has an upside in the artificial sweetener camp and has shed the negative implications that have shadowed others.

In a perfect world, beverage makers would probably opt for natural sweeteners as the de facto blending component. A natural sweetener alternative such as stevia might have been on Talking Rain’s formulation radar, but didn’t fit the bill. “I hope I am the one who invents a natural sweetener [for Sparkling ICE], because then I can retire,” Klock joked.

Other beverage processors are on the trail to achieve the gold standard of flavor and health. The Coca-Cola Co. and stevia producer PureCircle in late December received approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for PureCircle Rebaudioside M, or Reb M, as a general-purpose sweetener for foods and beverages in the United States.

The FDA rubber stamp could be the springboard the Atlanta-based beverage giant requires to launch more low-calorie beverages and counter the sales drop that’s bedeviled diet carbonated soft drinks. Coca-Cola and PureCircle have a five-year supply agreement—punctuated by a mission to seek global intellectual property coverage for the Reb M ingredient.

High-purity Reb M (also known as Reb X) has a closer taste to table sugar than previous stevia ingredients, according to the company, allowing for deeper calorie reductions in food and beverage products, particularly those with higher levels of sweetness.

Plant-derived stevia has become so popular that it’s poised to become a $1 billion-dollar seller in the near future, according to food market analysts. Other products using stevia include Insight new Hydralive Coolers, as well as many condiments for the coffee bar including Smucker Foodservice’s Stevia In The Raw and Whole Earth Sweetener Co.’s certified non-GMO Pure Via stevia sachets.

Present Tense for ‘Intense’

Laura Jones, global food science analyst for Chicago-based Mintel Research, says “global usage of intense sweeteners has displayed positive growth over the past five years.” She defines intense sweeteners as ingredients “designed to replace only the sweetness of sugar and allow the product developer to create sweet-tasting products without the calorie contribution of traditional sugars.”

In 2009, 3.5% of all food and drink product launches contained one or more types of intense sweeteners in their formulations, but by 2013 the figure increased to 5.5% of all launches, says Jones.

“The spotlight is firmly fixed on sugar and all the negative publicity influencing consumers’ consumption of it, as only 11% of U.S. consumers reported using more sugar in 2013 than they did in 2012, while 37% of UK consumers try to avoid sugar wherever possible in their diet,” Jones told Convenience Store Products.

Jones also points to Acesulfame K, or Ace K, as one that’s being closely scrutinized by food and beverage makers. Ace K is known to be far sweeter than sucrose, as sweet as aspartame and about two-thirds as sweet as saccharin. Like saccharin, it has a slightly bitter aftertaste, especially at high concentrations.

“Ace K can be viewed as a blending component to enhance sweetness—where the sweetness in a beverage comes on early in consumption or comes on later. The goal is to get the taste profile as close to sweet as possible,” Jones says.

Looking outside the beverage segment, Jones believes that more upward pressure will be placed on products such as indulgent ice creams and candy to cut out sugar from the formulation blueprint.