How Do You Solve the Sugar Epidemic? Solve Flavor Defects

 sugar epidemic and flavor defects
With the average American consuming three times the daily recommend amount of sugar and obesity reaching epidemic proportions, the food industry is frantically trying to develop healthier products. However, taking sugar out of foods is not as simple as it sounds as it provides a critical role in product development due to flavor defects.

Product formulators are tasked with creating great tasting products that can be enjoyed by the masses. The challenge is that many natural ingredients have flavor defects such as bitterness, astringency and sourness which are off-putting to consumers. Their efforts become particularly challenging when developing products that are also, non-GMO, chemical-free and organic. To combat flavor defects, food manufacturers have adopted a practice known as masking, which is capable of hiding the unwanted tastes. Flavor masking works by over satiating taste receptors to the point of not being able to detect flavor. Vanillin and aroma chemicals are common masking agents but the most popular is sugar. Sugar is highly effective, inexpensive and provides structure to foods that few ingredients can; however, its health implications and the changing consumer landscape poses a challenge for its use in future product formulations.

But the challenges continue:

Although more than 51% say they want less sugar in their foods, taste is the most important factor in product acceptance and consumers are unwilling to compromise. Over the past several years, food manufacturers have been looking for solutions that are capable of providing full flavor without the added calories; however, finding effective sugar replacements that align with consumer trends has posed challenging.

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Artificial sweeteners

One of the first solutions to solve flavor defects without the use of sugar was artificial sweeteners. These substances were created to have zero calories while mimicking the taste of sugar. It was promoted as the perfect solution for the obesity epidemic. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that researchers found a link between the use of artificial sweeteners and bladder cancer. Soon after, researchers also implicated aspartame (a popular artificial sweeter) in causing a variety of tumors. In 2008 research showed that consumption of artificially sweetened beverages is associated with increased risk of diabetes.

Natural Sweeteners

Because of the controversies surrounding artificial sweeteners, scientists today are in constant search for healthier alternatives, especially from natural sources. Stevia is one of the most popular natural sweetener alternatives available on the market. Derived from a plant, this natural sweetener is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar with zero calories. The challenge with Stevia is its bitter metallic aftertaste. Several companies are looking for a solution to the aftertaste issues of stevia.

What is Reb A Stevia
Stevia Leaves – Image courtesy

Monk Fruit is another popular natural sweetener alternative. Monk fruit was GRAS approved in early 2010 and has seen traction in several different categories. However, monk fruit’s high price point and unique aftertaste has limited its potential. Typically, monk fruit has been used in conjunction with stevia to increase overall sweetness with less flavor defects.

Monk Fruit – Image Courtesy

Artificial Bitter Blockers

Flavoring companies have also tried to address bitterness by developing synthetic bitter blocking compounds. They work by blocking a bitter taste from binding with a taste receptor site; without the binding, the bitter taste is not perceived. Historically, chemical blockers have had varying degrees of success at mitigating bitter tastes, usually with limited applications and parameters. Artificial bitter blockers have also had challenges with the evolving consumer landscape who are looking for more natural ingredients.

Organic Bitter Blockers

Till recently there have been no known organic bitter blockers available on the market. It wasn’t until mid 2014 that MycoTechnology discovered the first of its kind. The certified USDA organic blocker is derived from a mushroom extract and used as a processing aid to effectively modulate a wide variety of substrates. MycoTechnology recently struck a deal with several major sweetener manufacturers to improve the flavor defects of stevia and monk fruit, however, it can be used in a broad range of applications.


What is Reb A Stevia?

What is Reb A Stevia

What is Reb A Stevia

While stevia refers to the entire plant, Rebaudioside A or Reb A is the primary steviol glycoside that make stevia sweet. There are typically 10 different steviol glycosides that can be found in varying concentrations within the stevia plant.

10 Steviol Glycosides found in Stevia

  • Stevioside
  • Steviolbioside
  • Rubusoside
  • Dulcoside A
  • Rebaudioside A
  • Rebaudioside B
  • Rebaudioside C
  • Rebaudioside D
  • Rebaudioside E
  • Rebaudioside F

Extraction Process of Steviol Glycosides

In order to be used in foods the glycosides need to be purified into extracts, which can be done with simple water/alcohol extraction techniques. The extraction process does not effect the composition or structure of the steviol glycosides.

The first step in the extraction process involves soaking the stevia leaves in hot water in order to separate the liquid from the plant. The plant is further purified using water and/or food grade alcohol to make a fine white powder.

FDA Regulatory

In the United States, stevia extracts must be comprised of 95% steviol glycosides in order to be used as a general purpose sweetener. While the overall percentage of steviol glycosides needs to be above 95%, the industry often refers to stevia based on its primary glycoside Rebaudioside A.

Sensory Analysis of Reb A

Most manufacturers produce stevia that has a Reb A concentration of 95% or higher. This is because although stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, its flavor profile is often found to be unfavorable by many consumers, which is more noticeable in lower concentrations of Reb A. Stevia has eight different flavor characteristics which can be tasted in the following order:

  1. Sweet Taste
  2. Bitter Taste
  3. Licorice
  4. Astringent
  5. Sweet Aftertaste
  6. Aftertaste
  7. Cooling
  8. Total Aroma

Even stevia extracts with a high percentage of Reb A, still has some of these negative attributes however, it is less noticeable.

Human taste buds contain different receptors to identify sweet and bitter compounds. While there is only one receptor responsible for sweetness, there are 25 that identify bitterness; however, only two receptors, hTAS2R4 and hTAS2R14 are activated when consuming stevia. The challenge for stevia is that sweetness and bitterness come from the same glycoside and the different solutions that have been developed typically will effect both bitterness and sweetness together.

Innovations in the stevia industry

Companies looking to use stevia in their product formulations are looking for innovative solutions to solve the taste defect issues found in stevia. There are three different approaches that have been used:


Several companies have developed synthetic solutions to help reduce stevia’s aftertaste. Synthetic chemicals are used as a bitter blocker to block a bitter taste from binding with a bitter taste receptor. Without the binding affect a person would not be able to perceive the bitterness from stevia. Synthetic solutions however are not 100% effective and are often limited to specific applications and tend to lose some of the total sweetness.

Genetically Modified

Other companies have developed genetically modified solutions to help with the aftertaste. Companies have created methods to genetically modified yeast to produce Reb A glycosides. Although the yeast is genetically modified the Reb A glycosides are considered natural by the FDA; however, the Non-GMO project verified committee has already commented saying that they will not be approving any product using this method.


Another company has taken a different approach and developed an organic bitter blocker derived from mushrooms that effectively improves stevia’s flavor profile. Bitterness, licorice, astringency, sweetness aftertaste, aftertaste and cooling effect are all improved will maintaining total sweetness. The organic technology has recently been adopted by some of the top stevia manufacturers in the world.

History of Stevia

Stevia is a native shrub to South America which has been used for centuries as a sugar substitute. Stevia was first commercialized in Japan just over 40 years ago, which was used as a natural sweetening agent. Now stevia has been approved for use in Korea, Mexico, Taiwan, China, Russia, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, Brazil and Malaysia. However, as of mid 2015 India has approved stevia extracts to be used in foods, which has exponentially grown the stevia market place.

Consumers Driving the Stevia Market

The World Health Organization (WHO), estimates that stevia could replace 20-30% of all dietary sweeteners within the coming years. This is based on consumers becoming more educated on the effects of sugar and artificial sweeteners, which in turn is driving demand for natural, non-caloric, high intensity sweetener alternatives like stevia. With new technologies and innovations the stevia market could soon become a successful alternative to sugar.