A tastier alternative

1 October 2020

Excess sugar’s harmful impact on health is a widely discussed topic. As a result of the increased prevalence of diabetes and heart disease worldwide, many companies now use sweeteners as an alternative. Jack Moore explores WHO’s research on the dangers of sugar, the use of sweeteners as an alternative and the complexities around using different parts of the common sweetener stevia.

According to Yuval Noah Harari, the bestselling author of Sapiens, “In 2012, about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence – war killed 120,000 people and crime killed another 500,000. In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.”

With the considerable risks associated with sugar now well known, health bodies have acted – with varied rates of success – to curb consumption through a mixture of taxation and public awareness campaigns. In the UK, a sugar tax was imposed to control people’s intake. With diabetes now heavily linked with coronavirus, focus will be accentuated on the potentially fatal impact of excess sugar. But in some countries, these well-intentioned efforts could be compared with King Canute, attempting, in vain, to hold back the tide.

According to Statista, the intake of sweet stuff burgeoned to 173.95 million tonnes in 2018/19 and this is set to rise to 176.45 million tonnes by 2019/20. India now consumes the most sugar of any region, followed by the Europe and China.

As humans continue to cumulatively eat their way through enough sugar to fill large football stadiums many times over, companies have turned to sweeteners to quell their insatiable appetite for la dolce vita. WHO now recommends decreasing free sugar consumption at all stages of life to less than 10% of physical calories, in order to reduce the risk of unhealthy weight gain and dental cavities. Sweeteners can be a particularly attractive option for people, as they add virtually no calories to their diet. Not all are created equal, however.

A word of caution

Artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, have been viewed with caution by some scientists for their effects on human health. When accessing the impact of non-sugar sweeteners on the human body, studies looking at animal toxicology have provided some understanding.

When Bristol University evaluated the topic, the majority of animal studies looking into their safety “found that exposure to low-calorie sweeteners either decreased or had no effect on weight, although consumption of low-calorie sweeteners in many of the animal studies was not representative of their consumption in the human diet”.

Some animal studies suggest that they might be extremely addictive, however. In an analysis of rats who were exposed to cocaine, when given a choice between intravenous cocaine or oral saccharine, many chose saccharin, for example.

In a WHO public consultation on non-sugar sweetener intake, Professor Jennie Brand-Millar of the University of Sydney expressed concerns about the food industry and consumer response to reducedadded sugars, stating that “higher intake of lowdigestibility sugars increases the risk of diarrhoea and potentially gastrointestinal inflammatory syndromes. I am concerned that the WHO recommendation to reduce added sugars intake to 5% may have unintended consequences. If consumers substitute 5% in the form of added sugar, with 5% in the form of starch (mostly high glycaemic index) and/or lowdigestibility sugars, this will cause an increased risk of diabetes, CVD and gastrointestinal conditions.”

Mixed opinions

Despite these concerns about some artificial sweeteners, the industry is growing at pace as the food sector looks to limit the amount of sugar to comply with WHO guidelines. Between 2000–14, 1.5 million US barcoded foods contained caloric sweeteners, which can often be hidden within a large list of ingredients. This amounts to an astronomical 70% of the food consumed in the US, according to Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, US.

“This will be seen globally when scholars begin to replicate the US research,” says Popkin. “With the new WHO sugar guidelines and the focus on either positive or negative front-of-the-package food profiles focusing on added sugar, we expect to see a vast increase in foods and beverages with low-calorie sweeteners in the coming decades.”

At the same WHO-organised debate, Ifeoma Uzoamaka Onoja from the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital believed that non-sugar sweeteners could lead to chronic diseases, in children and adults.

Vasiliki Pyrogianni at the International Sweeteners Association, Belgium, offered an alternative viewpoint in favour of sweeteners and their increasing prevalence, however.

“With regard to proposed grouping of low-calorie sweeteners into ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’, the International Sweeteners Association (Isa) believes that this type of grouping has no scientific basis,” he argues. “The term ‘artificial sweetener’ is not a recognised scientific term, nor is it a term found in the regulatory approval of these ingredients.

“The balance of scientific evidence indicates that the use of low-calorie sweeteners, such as aspartame, acesulfame-K, cyclamate, saccharin, sucralose and steviol glycosides in place of sugar – in both children and adults – leads to reduced energy intake and body weight. Furthermore, the effects of low-calorie sweetened beverages on body weight also appear neutral relative to water, or even beneficial in some contexts.”

A sweet alternative

One alternative to the lab-made sweeteners that are increasingly turning up in soda, candy and numerous other food products is natural stevia, obtained through various technologies, such as extraction from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant.

The word ‘stevia’ refers to the entire plant and its components, only some of which are sweet. The sweet-tasting parts of the plant are called steviol glycosides.

Stevia is associated with several notable health benefits, such as lowered calorie intake, blood sugar levels and risk of teeth cavities. Its growing renown is becoming big business; the global stevia market’s estimated revenue in 2018 was a significant $895 million. Worldwide, China is the largest manufacturing market region in the world. Meanwhile, Pure Circle, GLG Life Tech and Julong High-tech are currently the global leading manufacturers of the finished product.

According to the Residue Monograph, prepared by the meeting of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (Jecfa), the leaves are “extracted with hot water and the aqueous extract is passed through an adsorption resin to trap and concentrate the component steviol glycosides. The resin is washed with a solvent alcohol to release the glycosides and the product is recrystallised from methanol or aqueous ethanol. Ion exchange resins may be used in the purification process. The final product may be spray-dried.”

The plant has a long history of use. It has been grown since the 16th century on small farms by labourers in Asia, South America or other tropical/ subtropical climates. It packs a tasty punch too, as it is 200–300 times sweeter than table sugar, despite having far fewer calories.

Under the spotlight

Looking ahead, according to an Allied Market Research report, ‘Stevia Market by Form’, the global market is expected to garner $1.16 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 8.0%, during 2019–26.

Not all steviol glycosides are the same, however. According to a joint FAO/WHO/Jecfa report, “in order to facilitate the evaluation of steviol glycosides in the future, the joint FAO/WHO Jecfa secretariats are evaluating the feasibility of establishing criteria for a procedure or framework that may allow grouping of certain steviol glycosides. The goal of this effort is to simplify and streamline the safety assessment and leveraging chemical, and physiological/toxicological similarities of steviol glycosides to the extent possible and where justified.”

High-purity stevia leaf extract contains 95% or greater steviol glycosides and only the high-purity stevia extracts meeting this requirement are accepted by the Joint Food and Agriculture Organisation/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives and Codex Alimentarius (Codex) for use in foods and beverages.

In 2006, Japan consumed more stevia than any other country, with the sweetener accounting for 40% of the island’s market. Its growing popularity as a natural alternative was picked up by beverage goliaths Coca-Cola and Pepsi, who have both launched a range of sweeteners and soft drinks with the ingredient over the past few years.

As the product continues to be added to these household-name products, it looks like stevia could become a useful weapon in the modern health aficionado’s armoury, helping to prevent surplus fat. And, at a time of crisis, when obesity’s harmful consequences are increasingly in the spotlight, the ingredient may become the tasty alternative of choice to combat excessive sugar’s toxic legacy.

Market trends and projections

The global sugar substitutes market size is projected to reach $10.27 billion by the end of 2026. The increasing applications of sugar substitutes in several food products will emerge in favour of market growth. According to a report published by Fortune Business Insights, ‘Sugar Substitutes Market Size, Share and Global Trend By Type (Aspartame, Acesulfame potassium, Saccharine, Sucralose, Stevia, Sugar Alcohols, and Others), Application [Food and Beverage (Table-top, Beverages, Bakery & Confectionery, and Other Processed Foods), Pharmaceuticals, and Personal Care and Cosmetics), and Geography Forecast till 2026’, the market was worth $6.35 billion in 2018 and will exhibit a CAGR of 6.3% during the forecast period of 2019–26.

The report highlights the ongoing market trends across North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. Among these regions, the market in North America currently dominates. The increasing investments, as well as efforts put in by major companies in the research and development of efficient sugar substitutes, will aid the growth of the market in this region.

The increasing prevalence of diabetes will lead to a wider consumption of sugar substitutes in several countries. Besides Asia Pacific, the market in North America will also witness considerable growth in the coming years, driven by the high prevalence of diabetic patients in the US. As of 2018, the market in North America was worth $2.39 billion and this value is projected to increase further in the future.

Source: Fortune Business Insights

$ 1.16 billion

Amount the global stevia market is expected to grow to by 2026, increasing at a CAGR of 8.0% during 2019–26.
Allied Market Research

< 10%

Percentage of physical calories to which WHO recommends people, of all ages, should decrease their sugar consumption.

Sweeteners, such as stevia, are an attractive alternative for those wishing to substitute sugar in their diet.

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.