CHICAGO — Just a tad sweet,” “a touch of sweetness” and “slightly sweetened” are phrases marketers are using to suggest their beverages are not concentrated sources of sugar. Others choose regulated content claims such as “reduced sugar,” “percent less sugar” and “no added sugars.” All are intended to appeal to the four out of five shoppers who are limiting or avoiding sugars in foods, a figure reported by the Washington-based International Food Information Council Foundation in its 2019 Food and Health Survey.

Studies show some shoppers rely on the sugar — and now the “added sugar” — content of beverages as a basis for decision to purchase and consume. Added sugars became a mandatory subset of the total sugars line in the Nutrition Facts Label on Jan. 1 for manufacturers with annual sales of at least $10 million. Smaller companies have an additional year to comply.

“Although consumer confusion about food and health remains high, one area showing the strongest consensus is the desire to reduce the amount of sugar in an individual diet,” said Mel Mann, director of innovation, Wixon, St. Francis, Wis. “Reasons behind this may be weight management, as well as to avoid health complications such as diabetes, cavities and other negative issues associated with high-sugar consumption.”

Rosa Sanchez, North America beverage innovation leader, DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences, St. Louis, added that no-sugar beverages are sought by consumers following the trending keto diet. Gatekeepers, too, are looking for fewer added sugars in beverages for their children.

Making sense of reduced sugar claims

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is very specific on permissible sugar claims. “Sugar-free” call-outs may be made on products with less than 0.5 grams of sugars per reference amounts customarily consumed (R.A.C.C.) and per labeled serving. “No added sugars” and “without added sugars” claims are allowed if no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient, such as concentrated fruit juice, is added during processing. “Reduced-sugar” and “less-sugar” claims are possible when there is at least 25% fewer grams of sugar per R.A.C.C. When making such a claim, the label must also state the comparison, such as “50% less sugar than (the reference food).”

While the descriptor “low” is defined by the F.D.A. as it relates to some nutrients as well as calories, it has not been authorized for use with sugar; therefore, low-sugar claims violate the F.D.A.’s labeling regulations. Descriptors such as “tad,” “a touch of” and “slightly” are not in the regulations.

Kool Aid reduced sugarOn Jan. 9 the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, formally requested the F.D.A. to take enforcement action against such vernacular that implies a beverage is not a concentrated source of added sugars. The group explained the claims are misleading. Labels of Honest Tea’s Organic Half Tea and Half Lemonade, for example, boast that the product is “Just a tad sweet,” while the 16.9-oz bottle contains 25 grams of added sugars, equal to 36% of the Daily Value. For context, the F.D.A. considers a product “high” in any nutrient if it contains at least 20% of the Daily Value.

“Since Honest began in 1998, we’ve strived with our variety of flavors to create beverages that are ‘just a tad sweet,’” a Coca-Cola spokesperson said. “We believe great-tasting tea doesn’t need to taste too sweet. For example, Moroccan Mint contains 8 grams of sugar, while others such as Just Green Tea or Ginger Oasis include zero grams of sugar. This helps us create a variety of better-for-you options that every consumer can enjoy.”

The spokesperson added that Honest’s teas contain less sugar than many competitors and that the brand continues to innovate to deliver a product that doesn’t taste too sweet.

“Beverages considered discretionary or recreational will receive the most scrutiny with the new added sugar callout on nutrition panels,” Mr. Mann said. “They also present the best opportunity to provide the consumer options to manage sugar consumption while retaining the familiarity consumers are looking for in their beverages.

“As sugar’s primary — often sole — purpose in these type of products is to contribute sweetness, reduced-sugar beverage products should focus on ‘sweetness maintenance,’ informing consumers how their taste experience will not change even as they benefit from a reduction in added sugars. Sugar is just one ingredient that can be used to maintain sweetness; beverage marketers have an array of alternatives to deliver this attribute while still meeting consumer expectations for less sugar.”

More than simply sweet

Sweetness maintenance is about delivering the familiar, distinctive taste curve of sugar. In addition to making sure the sweetness intensity is the same, the developer must ensure the timing of the sweet sensation is the same. Depending on the beverage, this may require careful blending of sugars with other ingredients.

“Flavor of a beverage can play a large role in selecting the right sweetener system,” said Vuk Levakov, technical manager for beverages – North America, Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “The addition of functional ingredients, such as protein, collagen and C.B.D., also has an impact.”

Honest TeaJonas Feliciano, manager of strategic marketing, global sugar reduction, Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill., said, “Sugar reduction has become an essential element of beverage design and, more often than not, an expectation of the consumer in order to deliver on health properties that they intrinsically expect. With the requirement of added sugars being disclosed, as well as the continued trend of artificial sweeteners falling out of favor, formulations using plant-based high-potency sweeteners mixed with natural caloric sweeteners should become the norm rather than an outlier.”

Cane sugar is the leading natural caloric sweetener used in beverages. It provides four sweet calories per gram. Some natural sugars provide extra nutritional value.

“By using a minimally processed whole grain sweetener, such as malted barley or oats, beverage companies can incorporate a ‘sweetener-plus’ ingredient that maintains important nutritionals found in the whole grain, such as essential amino acids, minerals, vitamins and soluble fiber,” said Amy Targan, president, Malt Products Corp., Saddle Brook, N.J.

In addition to blending sweeteners, adding a taste modifier may provide further assistance. Some flavors also impact sweet taste.

“Our modifiers are differentiated by adhering to the natural taste curve of sugar, which we have verified through external sensory testing,” Mr. Mann said. “Vanilla, for example, will make beverages taste sweeter by stimulating retro-nasal receptors, apparently amplifying the sweet signals from the tongue.

“A class of compounds known as positive allosteric modifiers bind to sweet taste receptors on the tongue and amplify the sweet signal to the brain, all without contributing their own taste.”

In some beverages, sugar also contributes mouthfeel, as sugar is a solid, and when dissolved in solution provides body that is noticeable when absent. High-intensity sweeteners — natural and artificial — are used at such low levels that their solids contribution is nominal. Depending on the beverage, bulking agents such as fiber, gum and starch may assist with building back the expected mouthfeel.

Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill., offers flavors with modifying properties. They work in tandem to replace the desirable attributes lost through sugar removal.

“The sweetness modifiers replace a small amount of sweetness,” said Deirdre Piggott, technical director at Sensient. “Therefore, they cannot replace a large amount of sugar, such as more than half in a beverage system, but they work like a charm with smaller reductions in building back the body that is lost when some sugar is removed.

“If the removal of sugar causes undesirable notes such as bitter, sour and astringent to come through, then masking flavors can be used.”

Andy Ohmes, global director – high intensity sweeteners, Cargill, Minneapolis, said, “While consumers’ growing aversion to added sugars is well documented, so is their uncompromising demand for great taste. Our next-generation stevia products have opened the door to dramatically improved reduced-sugar beverage formulations.”

Natural high-intensity sweeteners, namely stevia leaf extracts and monk fruit, complement the growing plant-based movement. It’s important to note that not all stevia sweeteners are created equal. Some are no longer plant extracts, as they are produced by microbial fermentation.

SweeGen, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., provides sugar-reduction solutions by producing and supplying at large-scale sweet-tasting molecules through bioconversion. This results in a sustainable high-purity stevia sweetener.

Capri Sun reduced sugar

Another plant-based ingredient that assists with sweetness is chicory root fiber. In addition to boosting the fiber content of the beverage, some ingredient formats have a sweet taste.

“Our approach goes beyond simple sugar reduction because we believe that reduction should happen in a smart way that considers physiology and metabolism,” said Kyle Krause, product manager for functional fiber and carbohydrates, North America, Beneo, Parsippany, N.J. “Chicory root fiber is an option for reducing total and added sugars. It is a very easy way to increase fiber intake while getting all of its proven prebiotic benefits.”

Natural prebiotic chicory root fiber ingredients include inulin and oligofructose. They offer a lower glycemic response, a positive impact on the gut microbiome, and enhanced calcium absorption leading to improved bone health and weight management support.

Mr. Mann said the new regulatory requirement to call out added sugars will increase consumer attention to this one nutritional aspect. That’s why it makes sense to keep added sugar low or void, especially in beverages, when water is an easy better-for-you alternative.

“Beverages are a logical ‘first place’ consumers will realize the amounts of sugar they are consuming,” he said.