Low-calorie food ingredients make thousands of the low-calorie and low-fat foods and beverages possible today. Approximately 194 million Americans consume these products. There are numerous petitions pending today for government approval of low-calorie sweeteners, fat replacers and other low-calorie ingredients. And that means even more products will be available soon to help consumers reduce calories, fat and cholesterol.
Health-conscious consumers have indicated they want additional good-tasting, low-calorie and reduced-fat (“light”) foods and beverages. Having a variety of low-calorie ingredients available allows food manufacturers to choose the most appropriate ingredient, or combination of ingredients, for a given product — the “multiple ingredient approach.”
Prior to the 1960s, “dietetic” products were marketed primarily to people (such as diabetic individuals) who for medical reasons had to follow dietary restrictions as part of a dietetic diet. Since that time, there has been a steady and significant change in consumers’ perceptions of reduced-calorie products — they are no longer for the few, but for the majority.
Increased health consciousness across the U.S., spawned during the 1960s, has blossomed into a national phenomenon. With the fitness craze has come an increasing number of converts to the “light” market. Today there is a strong demand for a wide variety of good-tasting, light foods and beverages, whether the foods are based on carbohydrate, fat or other caloric replacements.
For nearly a century, low-calorie products were almost entirely dependent upon saccharin, the oldest of available low-calorie sweeteners. Now with the addition of aspartame, acesulfame potassium, neotame and sucralose, as well as the possible approval of other low-calorie sweeteners such as cyclamate, a “multiple sweetener approach” is being utilized, providing consumers with new product and taste choices.
A variety of sweeteners is important because neither saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, neotame, sucralose nor any of the new sweeteners is perfect for all uses. However, with several low-calorie sweeteners available, each can be used in the applications for which it is best suited. Also, when necessary, manufacturers can overcome limitations of individual sweeteners by blending sweeteners together.
Since its discovery in 1879 and during its extensive use in foods throughout the twentieth century, saccharin provided the foundation for low-calorie foods and beverages. Although it was used commercially as early as 1910, the real impetus for widespread use was provided by both World Wars, when sugar supplies were rationed and/or cut off entirely.
During the 1960s, cyclamate joined saccharin as a viable commercial sweetener, and the two ingredients in tandem were popular in diet soft drinks, tabletop sweeteners and other products. This was really the first practical application of the multiple sweetener approach. The primary advantage of this sweetener blend was that saccharin boosted the sweetening power of the less potent cyclamate (the two sweeteners have a synergistic effect — that is, the sweetness of the combination is greater than the sum of the individual parts).
In 1970, cyclamate was taken off the U.S. market, and once again saccharin became the only low-calorie alternative to sugar.
Aspartame made its debut in the U.S. food supply in 1981 when it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as a tabletop sweetener and in various foods and dry beverage mixes. Approval of the sweetener was expanded in 1983 to include carbonated beverages. Since then, aspartame has been approved for additional foods and beverages and is now approved for use in any food or beverage. It currently is used in more than 6,000 products worldwide.
With these approvals and its clean, sweet taste, aspartame provided much of the impetus for the tremendous growth in light foods and beverages during the 1980s. Aspartame’s assets include a sugar-like taste and properties which make it suitable for a variety of products. It has the ability to intensify and extend certain flavors, especially fruit flavors, which, for example, makes chewing gum taste sweet up to four times longer than with sugar-sweetened gum.
In 1988, FDA approved another low-calorie sweetener, acesulfame potassium, for use as a tabletop sweetener, in dry beverage mixes and in other foods. Since then, FDA approved acesulfame potassium for additional uses, including carbonated beverages. Acesulfame potassium’s stability in heat and in liquids makes it a versatile sweetener with potential use in a wide range of foods and beverages.
Acesulfame potassium may be combined with other low-calorie sweeteners resulting in synergistic blends that provide improved taste profiles and overcome the slight aftertaste which may be noted in some products when acesulfame potassium is used at high concentrations. Acesulfame potassium also can provide economic and stability advantages when blended with other sweeteners.
Sucralose was granted approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on April 1, 1998 and approved for use in 15 food and beverage categories. This is the broadest initial approval ever granted by FDA for a food ingredient. The FDA expanded the uses for sucralose in 1999, approving it as a “general purpose” sweetener. Sucralose is a derivative of sugar but is 600 times sweeter, so very small amounts are needed to obtain equivalent sweetness. It tastes like sugar and has excellent stability in liquids and when heated. Sucralose is approved in more than 30 countries.
In July 2002, the FDA approved the use of neotame as a sweetening ingredient in any food or beverage product sold in the U.S. Neotame tastes very similar to sugar, is sweeter than other no-calorie sweeteners and is approximately 30 times sweeter than aspartame, and 7,000-13,000 times sweeter than sugar.
Additional low-calorie sweeteners, including cyclamate, could be available in the U.S. in the near future. A petition for the return of cyclamate to the U.S. market has been pending before FDA since 1982. If cyclamate is reapproved, it will be used in combination with other sweeteners for most uses, primarily because of its relatively low sweetness intensity — 30 times sweeter than sucrose.
Recently, the reduced caloric value of a group of sweeteners known generally as polyols has become more widely recognized. Included in this group are: erythritol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. Polyols can be used in a wide range of low-calorie, low-fat and sugar-free foods — from baked goods to frozen dairy desserts and confections — since they provide bulk without all the calories of sugar. Polyols do not promote tooth decay. Also, they are acceptable for people with diabetes following a diabetic diet.
Many consumers are striving to meet dietary recommendations to reduce fat and cholesterol intake. With more than twice the calories/gram of sugar, fats are the greatest hidden source of calories in food. (Fat is 9 calories/gram; sugar is 4.) New fat replacers are providing consumers with an expanding number of products that have excellent taste and texture with less fat, cholesterol and calories.
The fat replacers developed to date generally fall into one of three categories: carbohydrate based; protein based; or fat based. Most of the low-fat products introduced in recent years contain carbohydrate-based fat replacers (e.g., cellulose, maltodextrins, gums, modified starches, polydextrose). Carbohydrates have been used safely for many years as thickeners and stabilizers. These ingredients are also effective fat replacers in many formulated foods. They are not suitable for frying foods.
Protein-based fat replacers have received considerable public attention due to FDA’s Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) approval of microparticulated protein, or whey protein concentrate. Protein-based ingredients have tremendous potential for use in a variety of products, especially frozen and refrigerated products. Although protein-based fat replacers are not suitable for frying foods, they can be used in many heat applications (e.g., cream soups, pasteurized products, baked goods).
Scientists have been able to chemically alter fatty acids to provide fewer or no calories, making fat-based fat replacers possible. Some fat-based fat replacers actually pass through the body virtually unabsorbed. These ingredients have the advantage of heat stability and offer excellent versatility, including use in frying. Currently, the availability of fat-based ingredients used in reduced-fat products is limited.
While a food ingredient’s functionality for a given product application may be one of many questions of interest to food technologists, its acceptability to consumers is based primarily on a single question: How does it taste?
The development of low-calorie and low-fat ingredients has been complicated by the fact that scientists really do not know much about the mechanism of taste. Thus it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict how a given ingredient will taste to all individuals.
A significant advantage of a multiple ingredient approach to calorie control is that manufacturers can look for and utilize the best “recipe,” i.e., the low-calorie ingredient (or combination of ingredients) that is most pleasing for a given product. The result is a greater variety of low-calorie/low-fat foods and beverages that have the taste, texture and appeal of their traditional counterparts.
Reduced-calorie and reduced-fat foods and beverages will not replace a person’s need for moderation and overall good nutrition. However, they do provide palatable alternatives which can make the difficult task of reducing fat and calories in the diet easier. Thus, when incorporated into a nutritionally balanced diet, these products can contribute positively to a healthy lifestyle.
With increased knowledge about taste and technology, the food and beverage industry is on the verge of developing a wider variety of good-tasting, low-calorie and low-fat products to meet the growing needs and demands of American consumers. A limited choice of low-calorie ingredients results in limited options for consumers. On the other hand, a wide variety of low-calorie ingredients provides products with improved taste and texture, increased stability, lower manufacturing costs, and ultimately, more choices for the consumer. And that’s good news for the growing number of calorie- and fat-conscious consumers.
Did you ask a question to our expert? Answers are now available on our Ask an Expert page!