Natural Sweetener Characteristics & Uses

Originally Published: September 5, 2018
Last Updated: February 4, 2021
The jar of honey represents a natural sweetener that can be used in many applications.

Sweeteners have a variety of functional properties, including taste, texture and crystal control, among others. Yet, with diabetes on the rise and an increased focus on nutrition and well-being, consumers are demanding more healthful products, including those with reduced sugar, low-glycemic indices, and low-carb and all-natural ingredients. Thus, product developers must not only understand taste, texture and functionality, but the nutritive value of the products they create.

The increased focus on nutrition puts the emphasis squarely on glycemic index, which has a lot to do with not raising blood sugar, said Mary Mulry, Ph.D., Managing Director, FoodWise One, LLC in her presentation “Functional Properties and Applications of Natural Sweeteners.”

Fructose doesn’t raise blood sugar like glucose (dextrose), but there are concerns about its use. HFCS is a very functional and inexpensive sweetener, but over-consumption can lead to obesity and other health issues, as well. And, in today’s market, there’s more focus on organic and non-GMO. Corn is a highly modified crop and has a poor reputation in the natural foods market. These demands are slowly moving into the conventional market.

Mary Mulry, Ph.D., CFS, Managing Director, Foodwise One LLC, from her 2018 Sweetener Systems Conference presentation.

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Blending sweeteners is important, whether nutritive or non-nutritive are used. Satiety and satiation are important in choosing ingredients. Sweeteners neither bring satiety nor satiation, unless they are blended with other macronutrients, such as fiber or protein. Alternative natural sweeteners have become increasingly important. Consumers desire natural-sounding ingredients and those that are non-GMO and organic. Additionally, their diet, such as Paleo, may dictate the sweeteners used. Another consideration is that food formulators might want to make a health declaration on the ingredient statement.

These natural alternative sweeteners include honey, which is versatile and has a distinctive flavor and high humectancy but can be costly and is non-vegan. Another natural alternative is maple syrup, which is vegan; has a range of flavor profiles; meets the Paleo diet restrictions (as does honey)—but is more costly than other alternatives. Agave has a clean taste and a low glycemic index, because it is high in fructose. It is available raw (i.e., not heated above 118°F). However, agave’s high fructose level can also be a negative with some consumers. Brown rice syrups are available in multiple Dextrose Equivalents (DE) that have different sweetener profiles with different functionalities. And, lastly, molasses is used frequently in pet foods.

Other syrups include: tapioca syrup, which has a clean flavor and can be used by
itself or blended with other sweeteners; and yacon syrup, a relatively new sweetener, which is less sweet because it contains 50% fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and 35% fructose. A prebiotic claim can be made when used, but presently reliability of supply is questionable.

Inulin syrups are less sweet and have a lower DE, but contain more FOS and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) that can reduce sweetness and have a binding property that makes them suitable for bars, for example. Other syrups include date, sweet potato, balsamic, sorghum and pomegranate.

Sweeteners are designed to make foods more palatable and have other functional characteristics, but they shouldn’t be a large part of the daily nutritional profile. Sweeteners are an additive, not a food, and should be used in moderation. As a product developer, it’s important to know what the consumer wants. Consumers rely on the internet for information and believe what they read. These factors should be considered when choosing a sweetener system, but overall, moderation is key.

“Functional Properties and Applications of Natural Sweeteners,” Mary C. Mulry, Ph.D., CFS, Managing Director, Foodwise One LLC, Longmont, CO,

This presentation was given at the 2017 Sweetener Systems Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to:

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