“The use of monk fruit (luo han guo or LHG) extract is definitely increasing. Launches of food and drink containing monk fruit have tripled over the past five years,” said Mintel global food science analyst Jones.
“Barriers? Mostly, it’s the cost. It’s a lot more expensive, but it’s also hampered at the moment by regulations."
(There are two Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS) suppliers of LHG in the United States, Guilin LAYN Natural Ingredients Corp (LAYN) and Biovittoria Ltd, with the latter's products now distributed by Tate & Lyle.)
Jones said the monk fruit was mostly used as a standalone sweetener at the moment – rather than in a blend with stevia or crystalline fructose, a trend noted in food and beverage formulation with LHG by Amax NutraSource last March – with iced tea and confectionery the main growth categories.
Still twice the price of stevia...
But she warned: “Some people say it has an ‘off’ taste. Not the bitterness of stevia, but I think it will still have taste issues.” Amax NutraSource claims that LHG improves stevia’s taste profile and eliminates its bitterness.
Amax NutraSource business development manager, Steve Light, told BeverageDaily.com today: "We routinely get approached by stevia providers regarding LHG and blending techniques. We have seen several new beverage releases of LHG/stevia over the last few months."
For zero calorie blends Light said Amax saw erythritol/LHG being used, as well as crystalline fructose and water soluble fibers.
"There is a growing trend towards reduced calorie blends. These are fused blends with LHG and sugar cane, brown sugar, molasses and honey," Light added, while admitting that LHG pricing remains twice that of stevia, as he noted last March.
Manufacturers make fruity mileage with monk fruit
Asked how monk fruit could create a USP against stevia-derived sweeteners in the marketplace, beyond being ‘all natural’ and zero calorie, Jones said the fact that it is derived from a fruit “is a point that manufacturers can push, because fruit is considered healthy, and also naturally sweet by the consumer”.
Mintel data showed that ‘all natural’ ingredients were an important food and beverage purchase driver for 61% of consumers, Jones said, but she said she thought taste issues were “still the main thing holding stevia back at the moment”, since having no unpleasant taste/aftertaste was important to 83% of consumers.
Nonetheless, major supplier PureCircle – with its next generation ‘Stevia 3.0’ extracts – said last year it had gone beyond high purity Rebaudioside A alone (Stevia 2.0) to develop better taste profiles using other steviol glycosides derived from the leaf, enabling manufacturers to cut calories by up to 40-50%.
“There have been a lot more products coming out that have not just been formulated with stevia, but a combination of products to try to mask stevia’s bitterness – because consumers have rejected stevia-only launches, it has been a problem,” Jones said.
“In the US we’ve seen Coke’s Glacéau Vitamin Water – a zero brand using stevia but also erythritol and crystalline fructose to offset the stevia taste. This kind of move is much more popular than a straight stevia formulation,” she added.
“But in Europe, erythritol is still not approved for beverage use – so formulators have to work around that and potentially look at using sweetener enhancers.”
Challenging times for ‘non-natural sweeteners’?
Despite lingering taste issues, did Jones believe that the old guard of non-natural sweeteners – the likes of sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K) – were under threat from natural alternatives in the US?
“I definitely think there is a threat from the natural sweeteners, particularly stevia,” Jones said. “Because although there is no sound evidence that aspartame, say, is bad – it’s approved as a food additive – there’s still the consumer perception that artificial sweeteners could cause health problems.
“So if consumers could have a natural sweetener, rather than an artificial one, that’s what they’d choose, given the trend towards natural ingredients being ‘good for you’.”
Artificial sweeteners will survive and thrive
However, Jones stressed that manufacturers would continue to use artificial sweeteners – due to their lower cost and the fact that they currently taste better than most all-natural sweeteners on the market.
(One next generation ‘ultra intense’ artificial sweetener developed by The NutraSweet Company is neotame, x8000 sweeter than sugar and chemically similar to aspartame, but reportedly more stable.)
“Using a natural ingredient is usually going to cost more than one artificially manufactured in the lab – you’ll get greater yields there. And the production process is going to be quicker, at least compared to when you’re growing a plant then extracting from that,” Jones added.
*When this article was first published, we incorrectly stated that Amax NutraSource and Tate & Lyle were the two GRAS-approved suppliers of LHG in the US.