‘We can cut sugar without alienating taste’: WET Group on its drink innovation

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

©istock/piotr_malczyk
©istock/piotr_malczyk
As the debate surrounding the safety of aspartame rages, research discovers how to create flavoured drinks without using sugar or additives.

A company claims to have developed a method for food and drinks companies to create flavoured drinks without sugar or sweeteners.

WET Group, an international water enhancing technology business, claims its AES machine can turn source water into super-premium alkaline water through a process of filtration, re-mineralisation and alkalisation. The water, according to the company, has a high, stable pH of 10.5 and can maintain this alkalinity after flavours are added.

It discovered the method with the help of scientists at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU), in conjunction with University of Sheffield and the UK government-funded research initiative Innovate UK, who carried out research into finding a method to create flavoured drinks without the use of sugar or sweeteners.

‘We need to look at the way we treat the water beforehand’

They began by looking at why sugar is added to drinks in the first place and found that the water purification process known as Reverse Osmosis (RO) can reduce the liquid’s pH level to values of 6.1 or lower – compared to water’s neutral pH level of 7.

RO removes dissolved salts (ions) and unwanted bacteria from drinking water by pushing it under pressure through a semi-permeable, thin membrane with tiny pores that restrict larger molecules and impurities from getting through.

However, the researchers found that this process causes the liquid to become more acidic through uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide, leaving a salty, bitter taste. As a result, sugar is added to drinks to cover up this adverse flavour.

Professor Martin Grootveld, professor of Bio-analytical Chemistry and Chemical Pathology at DMU, explained: “Our study shows that in order to reduce the amount of sugar in drinks, we need to look at the way we treat the water beforehand.

AES system
WET developed the AES system to treat water

“Sugar is being used to disguise the acidity in drinks, rather than improve the flavour, and actually adding sugar causes the pH value of water to decrease even further – we found some drinks had a highly acidic pH level of 2.5.”

In short, the research suggested that if drink production can maintain a high pH level and lower the amount of total dissolved solids (TDS), it then removes the need for any sugar additions. 

This discovery led WET to test its AES technology which cleans water through a process of filtration, re-mineralisation and alkalisation. It uses no anti-biotics or chemicals to do this.

Realising that sugar is not used for flavour but to cover up the loss of flavouring due to extreme acidity was a big step, which set us on the path to developing the AES machine to solve the issue​,” said Dr. Ahmed Abbas Mohamed, director of research and development at WET Group.

How the AES water treatment works
How the AES water treatment works

Safety and spoilage 

The study showed that water treated by the AES facility retained a pH value greater than 9, even after flavours were added.

The drinks created maintained the higher pH value and showed no microbial growth when exposed to 12 weeks of accelerated shelf-life testing at ambient and abusive temperatures of 20°C and 30°C. The drinks also contained less than 0.1 g of sugar per 100ml.

DMU researchers have confirmed the treated water is safe for human consumption, after conducting a clinical trial studying blood, urine and saliva samples taken from participants who had been drinking it on a regular basis.

'Technically advanced solutions' can aide reformulation 

The process has been found to have wide-ranging applications for soda soft drinks, zero alcohol beverages, Cannabidiol (CBD)-infused water and fermented drinks, with the AES technology now readily available to drinks manufacturers that create drinks for customers.

WET Group claim the AES machine is a first in the market and has been awarded the Seal of Excellence by the European Commission for eliminating sugars in drinks and the best technology innovation 2019 for beverages by the global beverage experts, Zenith.

Dr Hajime Kinoshita from the University of Sheffield's Department of Materials Science and Engineering conducted some of the testing alongside Dr Theodore Hanein, a Research Associate in Materials Chemistry.

Dr Kinoshita said: "We are pleased that WET has been able to develop this AES technology, which we hope will support the drinks industry to use less sugar."

Mel Ragnauth, chief commercial officer at WET Group, added: “With the food and beverage industry facing an ongoing challenge to reduce sugar, salt and fat across all foodstuffs without alienating consumer taste preferences, research of this kind points to the fact that technically advanced solutions are increasingly available to help them do so.”

Related topics: R&D, Soft Drinks & Water

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