Stevia innovations: from losing bitterness to modulating flavour

Saquib Ramday, Category Director at Tate & Lyle, discusses the evolution of stevia’s use from early formulations to new applications as a flavouring substance with modifying properties

As sugar reduction remains a leading trend throughout Europe and around the globe, we’ve seen consumer awareness of the topic mature and people gradually gain a more sophisticated understanding of the sugar replacement solutions available to them.

It’s no longer enough for manufacturers to reduce sugar in their recipes, they must increasingly consider consumer preferences when it comes to sweeteners. With one third of end users looking to avoid food or drink that contains artificial ingredients, there has been a notable shift in demand towards ingredients from plant sources, such as stevia sweeteners.

The industry has responded to this consumer preference and we’ve seen the number of food and beverage formulations containing stevia increase exponentially during the last few years, with a particular spike in the last two years.

Stevia sweeteners have now overtaken aspartame as Europe’s third most popular sweetener and accounts for more than a quarter of all sweetener usage in Europe, (just less than sucralose and acesulfame K. It continues to grow at a faster pace than any other sweetener in Europe, gaining traction across a wide range of categories, including beverages, confectionery, dairy and convenience.

From early formulation challenges to combinatory applications

Although we know that many consumers are attracted to plant-based sweetening solutions, they’re not willing to sacrifice great taste, which is still the dominant factor impacting buying behaviour. Stevia sweeteners have therefore been on a journey to achieve the best taste profile possible … and the scientific applications used have evolved enormously during the last few years.

Those applications involve controlling the steviol glycoside compositions, which are the active compounds in the stevia leaf that deliver sweetness. The most commonly used one is rebaudioside A (Reb A).

One of the biggest challenges that ingredient manufacturers have faced in the last few years has been removing the bitter aftertaste that’s commonly associated with early generation stevia products. Standard stevia products with a lower rebaudioside A content were known to exhibit a detectable bitterness or lingering aftertaste, which was enhanced by the content of other compounds such as stevioside, the second most common steviol glycoside in the leaf.

Saquib Ramday, Category Director, Tate & Lyle

When the Reb A content was increased to improve the purity and, therefore, the taste, the overall cost went up and solubility often become an issue. To combat this, first-generation stevia products had to be formulated with other sweeteners or masking agents to disguise the bitter aftertastes for consumers and manage the solubility issues for manufacturers.

Scientific advances are now increasingly focused on the use of rarer steviol glycosides, including rebaudioside M, C, B and D, which all have different properties and individual taste profiles. As a reuslt, scientists have explored the bitterness concentration thresholds for individual molecules and developed combinatory formulations to achieve an improved taste compared with first-generation technology.

Combining steviol glycosides allows a countless number of different molecular arrangements. Different blends can be tailored to suit specific formulation requirements throughout a variety of food and drink categories. For example, sweetener solubility is particularly crucial for use in beverages, whereas a rich, dairy formulation such as ice-cream would require a blend that’s very closely matched to the taste profile of sugar.

Stevia: More than just a sweetener

There is also more to stevia than just its sweetening properties. Scientists have increasingly been experimenting with steviol glycoside blends to utilise it as a flavour-modifying ingredient. This works in relation to “time intensity” principles, which refer to how long a flavour component takes to deliver its taste sensation once in the mouth.

Certain steviol glycosides present in the blend have an earlier onset of taste, whereas others have a delayed onset. Combined, they are able to react with different flavours in a formulation to enhance or subdue various elements. Depending on the “sweetness peaks” of the molecules, they will react with the other flavours’ time intensity profiles and modify the taste accordingly.

For example, a strawberry flavoured water may originally have a fresh, uncooked strawberry taste that peaks early in the mouth. If you combine this with the right stevia molecules, the fresh notes can become supressed, which means the taste profile will become more closely aligned to a cooked strawberry.

Those applications are not only possible in sweet products but are also increasingly being put to use in savoury recipes, in which stevia can be used to balance out bitter tastes in tomato-based sauces or to counteract the acidity in a variety of dishes.

A portfolio of sweetener solutions

Whether stevia extracts are being used as a sweetener or a flavour modification tool, the biggest challenge for manufacturers is achieving the best taste for their formulation while still keeping costs down and minimising solubility issues. Tate & Lyle, a global leader in sweetener solutions, has leveraged advanced technologies and now offers stevia products that have the potential for even higher levels of sugar replacement without compromising on taste or solubility.

To meet the increased demands of innovative low and no calorie sweetening solutions, Tate & Lyle established a partnership with Sweet Green Fields (SGF) in 2017, one of the largest privately held, fully integrated global stevia ingredient companies.

Through the partnership, customers have access to this exceptional line of stevia solutions, including the OPTIMIZER Stevia range, which provides great taste with lower cost-in-use, as well as other established stevia offerings, such as the breakthrough proprietary INTESSE Stevia extract range.

The portfolio also includes the newly launched Zolesse Natural Flavour, which is designed to be used as a flavour modifying ingredient. Zolesse is labelled as a natural flavour and has been developed to deliver a clean taste profile in carbonated soft drinks and flavoured waters, building on the taste modulation properties of steviol glycosides.

With the breadth of its expertise, Tate & Lyle is now delivering even more solutions for manufacturers to help them tackle their unique formulation challenges and create products that their end users are looking for.

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