Erythritol use blossoms but regulatory, technical challenges remain
Erythritol is a polyol that occurs at low levels in many fruits and at higher levels in fermented foods such as soy sauce, cheese, wine and beer. It contains a variety of benefits, including low-calorie content, low GI index and a low laxative effect. The sweetener has been allowed for use in the US since 1997 and in Japan since the early 1990s. In Europe it gained novel foods approval in 2006 and the subsequent directive required that all member states recognise it as a permitted ingredient within 18 months. Following the passing of this deadline in February, manufacturers have started to look more seriously at the sweetener and consider using it in different kinds of products, Henry Hussell, head of marketing at Cargill Sweetness, told FoodNavigator.com.
He said the company has been working with erythritol since 1993. Cargill does some initial work around applications for its sweeteners, but it also works with its customers on how it works in their applications - and on other options. There are some challenges to erythritol's use - it cannot be used as a 100 per cent replacement sugar, but rather combined with another sweetener. "You need to work with the whole food matrix, including texturisers and flavour systems." "It is not a panacea," he added - but called it, nonetheless,"the newest and most exciting sweetener we have in Europe." He said that interest is high even though current EU restrictions mean erythritol-containing products cannot yet claim to be low-calorie. In the current climate of better-for-you foods, manufacturers are still interested in the reduced calorie claim, and are also interested in it for its flavour and bitter masking potentials.
The low-calorie conundrum
The new EU nutrition and health claims regulation allows for a low calorie claim to be made on products that contain less than 40 kcal (170 kJ)/100g and less than 20kcal (80kJ)/100ml. However erythritol is classified as a polyol (a sugar alcohol). Under EU rules, polyols can only claim to contain 2.4 kcal/g of the sweetener, as opposed to 4kcal/g for sugar. In fact the calorie level in different polyols varies, and it is particularly low in erythritol - just 0.2kcal/g. This means that, technically-speaking, erythritol users can meet the requirements for a low calorie claim, even when used in combination with higher calories sweeteners. But the regulatory line means they cannot flag this up to consumers, since the 2.4 kcal/g rule would push it over the limit. According to Hussell, the scientific committee of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has agreed that erythritol's calorie status is zero. However the matter still needs to go through the committee agreement stage and be published. This may still be quite a lengthy process, but Hussell said it will open up greater support from manufacturers if they can make a low calorie claim. Although he did not wish to give current or projected sales volumes, he said Cargill is "looking for it to grow," and "zero calorie is the key". To pave the way for this official recognition, Cargill has already branded its erythritol product Zerose. "We are quite amazed we managed to get it," Hussell admitted. He said that, even though they cannot use the low-calorie claim yet, European manufacturers are already interested in putting this brand on their product packs. They can make a reduced calorie claim if the calorie content is reduced by at least 30 per cent.
Hussell recognises that erythritol "is not an easy ingredient to use", since it is not simply a question of replacing sugar, as it is with maltitol, for instance. While maltitol may be more adaptable, it has less advantages than erythritol, such as the taste properties and the zero calorie level. The key, Hussell said, is combining it will another sweetener ingredient, but in a way so as not to negate the 30 per cent calorie reduction that erythritol affords. Hussell said that chocolate is one of the categories for which Europe's new sweetener is attracting interest. Contrary to the reported experience of some companies conducting tests in this area, who reported a "bubbling" texture, Cargill has found a way to make it work. "We can work with erythritol in chocolate, but it is not a matter of just replacing sugar with erythritol. You also need some maltitol and some fibre," said Hussell. "In chocolate it is possible to secure the 30 per cent calorie reduction." In addition, Hussell said it is now being used in dairy, ice-creams and bakery filling, even with just a reduced calorie, rather than a low-calorie claim.
The beverage question
Cargill has also conducted tests on the use of erythritol in beverages with positive results - even though it is not possible at the moment to use the sweetener in this product category. The limitation comes down again to erythritol's status as a polyol. Since large quantities of polyols are known to have an unfortunate effect on digestion, products using them at levels higher than 10 per cent have to flag the presence of a laxative on the label. According to Hussell in this respect erythritol again distinguishes itself from other polyols. "It does not have the same effect. The digestive tolerance is much higher," he said. Cargill is presently conducting clinical studies around digestive tolerance of the sweetener in beverages. Although the results are expected in the next month, it could take a year or two before they are written up and published in a peer-reviewed journal. Such publication would then most likely be reviewed by EFSA, before any possible change would be mulled by the European Commission. In the meantime, in the United States and Japan erythritol is already being used in beverage products.
In the US, where erythritol has been permitted since 1997, Hussell said it is "gaining traction". Part of this is down to its use in beverage. In addition, however, Hussell said: "Although we don't promote it as an out-and-out natural product in Europe, in the US it is possible to describe it as natural. "All-natural is a big claim in the US, and erythritol enables that."