There is a wide range of unexplored and under analysed plant and fruit compounds out there; and somewhere in the soup, there are natural sweeteners that have potential to form a whole new industry sector. The trouble lies in finding them, and commercialising them.
Speaking with FoodNavigator, Professor Monique Simmonds, director of the innovation unit at Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, UK, said she believes there is an increased industry interest in looking to copy the success of monkfruit by taking other fruit extracts as a sweetener ingredient.
“Many companies are looking for things that are already out there, but are not yet classified as sweeteners,” said Simmonds. “That could be some of the fruit derived extracts like monkfruit.”
“Agave is another one – from the cactus plant – which is very interesting because of the complexity of the sugars,” she said - adding that the complex sugars in agave produce a lower glucose response in the blood than sugar.
Simmonds explains that the trick is to look for compounds or extracts that provide a sweet tasting hit, but not are not broken down by insulin, and therefore do not result in higher glucose load.
The botanical expert suggested that industry can learn from the way monkfruit extracts have become a success, and apply this to a whole host of other fruit and plant based extracts.
“Looking for more examples like that is where I think the industry will be having an emphasis. I know it’s where we are.” she said.
‘The next stevia’
“There are quite a lot of plants out there that are the equivalent of stevias,” said Simmonds.
She noted the growing ‘huge interest’ in food internationally, adding that capturing traditional information about foods could help researchers and industry to identify more sweeteners.
“For example, having people studying some of these things in other countries with their knowledge of the fruits and plants that other cultures are using to sweeten their food dishes."
This was the basis for the discovery of stevia, which has been known to be used in traditional foods, she explained.
Stevia was one compound that caught the imagination, and ‘hit the headlines’, she said.
“Then of course a whole lot of scientists focus on those compounds.”
But she believes by going back and looking at these traditional recipes, we can find other promising products, “because stevia just like many others can be traced back hundreds of years.”
“There are more of those opportunities, and I think that is important at the moment, not just for industry, but because it can help to justify the support of some of the environments where these plants are growing,” she added.
Simmonds said that stevia is a ‘very interesting model’ for future compounds to look at, “because of how long it has taken to get that through EU approval.”
“What is interesting is that of course stevia has been around for ages, and it takes quite some time for these things to gain regulatory approval and be incorporated into products,”
“So the question now has to be, how can we do that better for something else in the future?”
“Coming up with that diversity of compounds that could possibly be sweeteners, could then spark off a whole new industry because you have some new intellectual property,” said Simmonds.
However she conceded that because many of these plants are not currently classed as foods, there would be ‘hurdles’ to cross in terms of legislation.