Polyols offer potential to plug the sugar gap - but problems remain

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Xylitol is a polyol sweetener commonly used in chewing gum. © iStock / Elmik
Xylitol is a polyol sweetener commonly used in chewing gum. © iStock / Elmik

Related tags Xylitol Sugar Sugar substitute

The focus on sugar intensified yesterday with news of a tax on soft drinks in the UK. But assuming a shift to low or no-sugar foods and drinks will lead to a boost in low-calorie speciality sweeteners is probably wide of the mark, unless they are natural.

With manufacturers coming under more and more pressure to reduce the sugar content of their products, reformulation to include more low-calorie speciality sweeteners would seem like an obvious option.

However, that doesn’t take into account the technical limitations that prevent use of speciality sweeteners in several product areas, or sweetener costs, which can force manufacturers to look for alternative options, according to a new analysis by Euromonitor International.

Take polyols, for example. These carbohydrates can provide sugar-free products with the bulk that is lost when sugar is removed. They are as sweet as sugar, but many have half the calorie content and none contribute to tooth decay, the briefing paper notes.

The market is also opening up for their use in beverages, with erythritol used in the US and Japan. Following a recent review of the data, the European Commission also approved it as a flavour enhancer for drinks. This is all good news for producers like Cargill, according to a new analysis by Giract, also published this week.

Hitting the sweet spot

Europe is an important producer of polyols, but there’s been only a “minuscule​” increase in volumes since 2011/2012, according to Giract. “There is evidence that a lot of capacity exists in Europe, which is still untapped.”

The US has had “a pretty good past few years”,​ with almost every player in the market ramping up its activities and production. This marks a turnaround in the global market, explained Giract’s Kaushik Shankar, with western manufacturers having slayed the Chinese dragon.

The cost of production in China has climbed up considerably over the years, he noted, so manufacturers just can’t compete on price any longer.

Giract has predicted healthy growth of 4.7% by 2020 globally for polyols. This won’t necessarily come from China or India given that these markets will not necessarily follow the path trodden by their western counterparts.

Sugar tax

Could further taxes on sugar change these forecasts for polyols? "Sugar taxes could play a part in promoting sales of no or low sugar products,”​ Shankar explained. “However, it remains to be seen how soon countries in Europe fully implement these taxes and how countries in other regions follow.”

The levy in the UK is on sugar-sweetened drinks, specifically. A recent paper by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested that taxes on drinks could see consumers get their sugar fix from other sources like chocolate, though the evidence for this is far from conclusive​.

Confectionery is the biggest area of polyol consumption by some distance, with sorbitol in gum leading the way, according to Euromonitor’s analysis.

This will change between now and 2019, the research group said, with absolute growth in gum limited to 104,000 tonnes in contrast to the 608,000 tonnes forecast for sugar confectionery.

Technical fix

However, the use of polyols has been restricted given that they do not brown or caramelise when heated and therefore can’t fully replace sucrose. Research needs to intensify, Euromonitor suggested, but the focus may well be on newer, natural options than the old artificial products.

If the technical issues can be resolved, natural sweeteners could become mainstream rather than niche.

“Stevia’s breakthrough has heralded increased interest in a number of other potential natural sweetening options,”​ Euromonitor noted. “Future speciality sweetener development is likely to apply exclusively to cases where the ingredient in question can be marketed as natural.”

Related topics Ingredients

Related news