People looking to cut back on sugar may soon start seeing more of a novel ingredient: allulose, a substitute that tastes and performs much like the real thing but with a tenth of the kilojoules and none of the cavity-causing, insulin-spiking drawbacks.
Allulose, considered a "rare sugar", in April got the blessing of the US Food and Drug Administration to not be counted as sugar in nutrition labels because it does not produce the same physical effects.
Since then, its primary manufacturer has seen a surge of interest from food companies seeking to cater to the large and growing contingent of consumers concerned that added sugar plays a leading role in obesity and disease.
"The size and value and number of opportunities that we're working jointly with customers on has, since April, probably grown by a factor of three or four," said Bill Magee, senior vice president and general manager of food and beverage solutions at ingredient-maker Tate & Lyle, which pioneered the commercial development of allulose at its global innovation centre in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.
"A lot of these customers had been doing the work to be ready to go ... and now [with the FDA label decision] everyone is running really fast to figure out how do get this into their brands," he said.
The FDA's guidance, a response to a petition by Tate & Lyle, came as large companies face a 2020 deadline to comply with new nutrition US labelling guidelines that draw more attention to sugar content, including a new line for "added sugars".
Now that allulose can be excluded from the sugar count and can be used with a "no sugar added" claim, the ingredient is a potential game-changer for appealing to label-conscious shoppers.
"Sugar is the No. 1 thing that consumers are trying to avoid," said Lu Ann Williams, director of insights and innovation at Innova Market Insights in the Netherlands. "You have a huge advantage if your product is really sweet and doesn't have a lot of sugar."
Allulose still faces obstacles, including high costs and concerns about potential side effects. But it is poised to add a unique solution to food manufacturers' arsenal of sweeteners at a time consumers are seeking both sugar reduction and natural ingredients.
Behaves like sugar
Big food companies such as Illinois-based Mondelez, the maker of Oreos and Chips Ahoy, are evaluating how allulose might fit into their sugar reduction strategies, particularly for baked goods that are more difficult to make with sugar substitutes that don't provide the texture or crispness of the real thing.
"We view allulose as a tool that could be helpful in that regard," said Dale Kyser, vice president of research and nutrition sciences at Mondelez. While he declined to comment on any pending product launches, he said, "I think you'll see more products start to use it."
More than half of households say "low sugar" is a key factor in deciding what to buy, according to Nielsen. Sales of products claiming to be low in sugar rose 2.7 per cent over the 12 months that ended in May, the most of all diet claims, the market research firm said.
Allulose behaves like sugar in a wide variety of applications, allowing cotton candy its fluff and caramels their chew.
Sales of artificial sweeteners have been declining over the past five years while sales of stevia, a natural high-intensity sweetener, have been climbing, according to Nielsen. But unlike those other substitutes, allulose behaves like sugar in a wide variety of applications, allowing cotton candy its fluff and caramels their chew.
Its breadth of potential uses could have important public health implications in an increasingly heavy nation, said Abigail Storms, vice president of sweeteners at Tate & Lyle, which sells allulose under the brand name Dolcia Prima.
"If allulose is used across all categories in which it is approved, you could reduce total calories into the US food system by 10 per ent," said Storms, whose company also makes the artificial sweetener Splenda.
Allulose has been commercially available for four years, but the inability to make sugar reduction claims on the labelling kept it from being widely adopted, and it is relatively unknown outside of the diabetes community and ketogenic diet circles.
Quest Nutrition, which uses allulose in some of its protein bars, was the first major adopter. Quest recently announced it is being acquired by the parent of the Atkins brand for $US1 billion ($1.46 billion). Know Better baked goods and IQ Bar, also health-focussed food companies, use it in their products. Coca-Cola has quietly tested it in the sweetener blend in a few flavours of its Fuze antioxidant teas.
Williams, of Innova Market Insights, said allulose may follow in the footsteps of plant-based protein, which started in sports nutrition products and is now ubiquitous.
"It could happen really fast," she said.
What is allulose?
First discovered in the 1940s, allulose occurs naturally in foods including wheat, figs, raisins, maple syrup and molasses, though for commercial applications it is derived from corn starch through an enzymatic process. It has the molecular structure of other monosaccharides such as fructose and glucose.
But unlike those sugars, it is not metabolised by the human body and is excreted almost fully intact in urine, resulting in just 1.7 kilojoules per gram, versus 17 kilojoules for regular sugar. In addition, it does not raise blood glucose levels or contribute to tooth decay, facts the FDA cited in its draft guidance as reasons to not count allulose as a sugar for nutritional purposes.
Meanwhile, it is functionally similar to regular sugar, which sets it apart from many other substitutes.
High-intensity artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (Equal) or sucralose (Splenda), or natural sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit, must be used in tiny quantities because they are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. Allulose, on the other hand, is 70 per cent as sweet as sugar and mimics sugar's bulk, mouthfeel, browning capability and freeze point, so it can take sugar's place in a range of products from cookies to ice-cream.
"Sugar is a pretty magical ingredient," said Nate Yates, sugar reduction lead at Ingredion, an ingredient manufacturer in suburban Westchester, Illinois. "Allulose checks a lot of boxes in sugar replacement."
Ingredion, in partnership with Japan's Matsutani Chemical Industry Co., plans to start producing allulose next month in its factory in Mexico, to supply to the Japanese market as well as the Americas under the brand name Astraea.
Yates anticipates allulose being used in ice-creams, yoghurts, nutrition bars, cereals, beverages and plant-based dairy, likely in combination with stevia for additional sweetening power.
"What's pretty amazing is that we just don't see products come along that have such a close mirroring of sugar in both taste and functionality," Yates said. "I think it has the ability to be a breakthrough ingredient."
Group sought warning labels
Some groups are concerned that much is still unknown about allulose's side effects. The non-profit Centre for Science in the Public Interest, in a comment to the FDA, supported not counting allulose as sugar in labelling because the body doesn't absorb it, but said "it is precisely because allulose is poorly absorbed that we are concerned about its potential adverse effects, such as nausea, bloating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pain".
Several studies that have found allulose doesn't cause gastrointestinal issues when consumed in moderate amounts had small sample sizes and were conducted only on healthy adults, the public health advocacy group said.
"We are particularly concerned that these adverse effects may harm children and people with irritable bowel syndrome," said the letter, which recommended the FDA require warning labels about digestive issues on products containing allulose.
The FDA, which gave allulose a "generally recognised as safe" designation in 2011, is reviewing comments on its draft guidance in advance of issuing a final rule, which will include implementation dates. But companies can adjust their labels to exclude allulose from the sugar count. Allulose must still be counted in the line for total carbohydrates.
To the American Association of Diabetes Educators, the potential health benefits of allulose outweigh concerns about side effects.
"The amount that a person is consuming would have to be very high to have negative effects," said Joanne Rinker, director of practice and content development at the organisation. "I think this is very harmless but everyone is different and it is important for each individual to consider their own tolerance level."
Allulose is becoming increasingly popular among people with diabetes who must monitor glucose levels, and it tastes more like sugar than other substitutes, she said.
"It basically doesn't have the mildly bitter after-taste that some of the others have," Rinker said.
It is also making inroads among people who follow the popular high-fat, low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet, which severely restricts sugar intake.
Cost may be challenge
Nui, a keto-friendly cookie brand founded three years ago in California, recently reformulated all of its recipes to include allulose, which it didn't use before because the labelling of allulose as a sugar caused "too much friction" with customers, said co-founder Victor Macias.
The company, which will release the new products next month, until now has used a blend of monk fruit and erythritol, a low-calorie sugar alcohol, but had trouble getting the dough right and some people complained of gastric distress as well as an aftertaste, Macias said.
In blind taste tests of the new allulose recipe with mainstream cookie eaters as well as keto dieters, "the feedback has been incredible", said Macias, whose company projects more than $US2 million in sales this year. "The taste is better, the texture is better."
Macias said the biggest challenge is the high cost of allulose, but he expects the price will drop as production ramps up.
"We believe in the long game," said Macias, who sells a box of 16 Nui cookies for $24.95. "We want to be the Nabisco of low-carb, that's our goal."
Companies currently using allulose, many of them startups, are targeting customers willing to pay more for nutrition.
New York-based Magic Spoon, which makes healthy versions of nostalgic Saturday-morning-cartoon cereals, uses allulose, in combination with stevia and monk fruit, for the sweet coatings of its fruity, frosted, cocoa and cinnamon O's. Priced at $39 for a pack of four boxes, each of which contains seven servings, Magic Spoon aims to appeal to people who would otherwise buy a protein bar or fruit smoothie for breakfast, said co-founder Greg Sewitz.
Sewitz expects allulose to become more commonplace in general food products in the next year or two, likely for new launches rather than reformulations of old standbys because of the risk of alienating loyal consumers.
"As the price comes down it will be a no-brainer for companies to start using it," Sewitz said.
Several companies sell crystalline and liquid versions of allulose direct to consumers. A 400-gram bag of Health Garden allulose retails for $US13.99 on Amazon and at Walmart.
How products market that sugar reduction depends on their audience. Some health food companies will want to highlight it, while sweets-makers that don't want to alienate customers with a diet product may let the nutritional label speak for itself, Storms said. Higher-end products peddling indulgence may play up the fact that they are using a "rare sugar", she said.
Jim Carr, director of global ingredient technology at Tate & Lyle, said the potential for allulose is exciting.
"When you think about nutritionally positioned products, you've always had to give up something," Carr said. "To me this is really a paradigm shift where really we're able to talk about more healthy products from a nutritional standpoint that also taste great."