Recommendations to reduce sugar intake, like the World Health Organization’s suggestion to the public to limit free sugar intake, have left many companies weighing the pros and cons of reformulating existing products or innovating with new ones.
On the one hand, replacing sugar with a low- or no-calorie sweetener seems like an obvious solution to maintain the sweet taste consumers expect. On the other hand, food manufacturers can’t consider altered taste in isolation when substituting sugar with another sweetener: They must also ask if the end product will have the same technical characteristics such as mouthfeel, texture, and melting or freezing points. Companies may also consider whether replacing sugar with a sugar substitute will positively impact the Nutrition Facts label and help justify the costs of reformulation. Finally, it has become important to consider how the growing group of consumers seeking out foods and beverages with fewer and more familiar-sounding ingredients will perceive products reformulated with sugar substitutes.
Results from the 2019 International Food Information Council’s annual Food and Health Survey indicate that the food industry may have no choice but to reformulate based on consumer opinion. According to the survey results, limiting sugar intake is the most common way consumers have changed their diets. And of the 80 percent of consumers looking to limit or avoid sugars, many have looked at Nutrition Facts labels to choose products with less sugar, have used low-calorie sweeteners, or have switched from full-calorie beverages to low- and no-calorie options.
In the face of consumer preference for natural, sweet products that are low in sugar and calories, allulose is gaining popularity.
A Rare Sugar with Benefits
Allulose is one of many sugars that exist in nature in very small quantities. Initially identified from wheat, it has since been found in fruits such as jackfruit, figs, and raisins. It can also be made from fructose as well as corn, which has helped make it cost-effective and scalable. Although allulose has long existed in nature, the FDA officially acknowledged its status in 2012, when the agency termed it to be Generally Recognized as Safe. In April 2019 the FDA published draft guidance on labeling products containing allulose. Given this recent publication and the current global dialogue around sugar reduction, it is no surprise the sweetener is receiving increased attention.
Allulose, sometimes written as D-psicose, is chemically classified as a monosaccharide. More specifically, allulose is considered a ketohexose, a six-carbon monosaccharide. The key to the unique sensory and physiological characteristics of allulose is the rotation of a hydroxyl group on the rare sugar’s third carbon. Due to this rotation, allulose is absorbed, but not metabolized, and is excreted intact in the urine.
Although some researchers estimate that allulose provides 0.2 calories per gram or fewer, others believe it contributes 0.4 calories per gram. To ensure the caloric contribution of allulose is not underestimated, the FDA has stated in its recent draft guidance that it intends to exercise enforcement discretion for companies using a caloric value of 0.4 calories per gram, “pending rulemaking to consider amending 21 CFR 101.9(c)(1)(i) to require the use of a general factor for caloric value of allulose of 0.4 kcal/g.” In addition to determining its negligible caloric contribution, nutrition researchers have also found that allulose does not impact blood glucose levels, and may even suppress the glycemic response of other carbohydrates consumed at the same time.
While there is no regulatory definition for “natural,” and as we await the FDA’s proposed rule to define the term “healthy,” allulose is poised to be used in more natural-type products. Although allulose is generally seen as a new ingredient on the market, its established safety, backed by robust scientific research and general consumer acceptance, make its use as a natural low-calorie sweetener a viable option. As a more important determinant of likeability, allulose has what is considered a “clean sweetness” similar to that of sucrose, and without off-flavors or bitterness.