The market for sugar-free confectionery can only gain pace, keeping in step with an increased consumer demand for 'guilt-free' products spurred on by burgeoning rates of obesity and diabetes across the globe. Suppliers of natural sweeteners are feeling the impact of this phenomenon as the trend penetrates the sweetener market.
France-based polyol manufacturer Cerestar, now under the wing of US giant Cargill, is to expand production of isomalt at its plant in Krefeld, Germany to respond to growing demand, said the company, that entered the isomalt market in 1998.
In Europe a handful of polyols - sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, maltitiol and isomalt - have been approved by the Scientific Committee for Food (SCF) for use in foodstuffs and fall under the 'additives' label.
The appeal of polyols - sugar alcohols industrially produced through hydrogenation of saccharides and a family of low-calorie bulk sweeteners - lies not only in their low calorie content but also their suitability for diabetic food. Since they are not or only partly metabolised they require a lower insulin dose for digestion than sugar. In the case of isomalt, it does not increase blood glucose or insulin levels.
"Food and confectionery manufacturers want to produce sugar-free andlow-calorie products that have the same or improved structure, texture, stability and taste. As one of the family of speciality polyols, isomalt isan important ingredient that can satisfy these needs," said Ralph Appel, business unit leader for Cerestar food and pharma specialties in Europe.
Discovered in the 1960s, isomalt is made from sucrose - with 50 per cent of its sweetness, and looks much like table sugar as it is white, crystalline and odourless. The polyol has been available in Europe since the early 1980s and is currently used in a wide variety of products in more than 40 countries worldwide.
Isomalt is a mixture of two disaccharide alcohols, gluco mannitol and gluco sorbitol, provides approximately two calories per gram and is synergistic with other sweeteners. An added appeal is that isomalt, a self-affirmed GRAS substance in the US, does not promote dental caries because oral bacteria cannot readily convert it into decay causing acids.
In addition to its main applications in sugar-free hard confectionery, isomalt is used in chewy confectionery, chewing gum, chocolate and bakery products and can be combined with other polyols or speciality ingredients.
Sorbitol is the most commonly used polyol,since it is the least costly. The prices of polyols insugar equivalent terms are higher than the EU sugar price (NEI(2000)). According to NEI (2000), the demand for polyols is limited both at EU and world level, both because of their product characteristics and because of their higher price compared to sugar.
Unlike high intensity sweeteners such as aspartame, in Europe natural sweeteners, which include high fructose syrups, are covered by the protective and supportive system of the CMO Sugar - the common organisation of markets for the sugar sector.
CMO Sugar, in place since 1967, is part of Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Reform to this sector is imminent with ministers from member states, together with Commission officials, currently discussing proposals to update the regime, left virtually untouched since its creation more than 30 years ago.
Leading suppliers of isomalt in Europe include German company Palatinit and major sugar producer Sudzucker.