A potentially crucial weapon has been added in the war on sugar.
London-listed Tate & Lyle announced the launch of new allulose low-calorie sugar substitute Dolcia Prima last week to some fanfare in the US, though it slipped somewhat below the radar here.
Its low profile in Europe is little surprise given it is yet to receive regulatory approval by the EU, though the FDA has granted GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status. However, Tate & Lyle is quietly talking up Dolcia Prima’s potential global impact.
Allulose purports to be a sugar substitute in the most genuine sense - it is a natural product that tastes and functions like sugar, but contains 90% fewer calories as it’s not metabolised by the body, while being 70% as sweet.
Crucially, its browning and bulking properties and temperature stability mean it can be used in a far greater range of food and drink production processes - including baked goods, chilled and frozen ready meals, sauces, yoghurts and ice creams as well as for the more usual application of sweetening beverages - than rival substitutes.
“Sugar is not just about producing sweetness, it provides bulk, it reduces water activity and it helps with the texture of products,” says one leading nutritionist. “If this new product works as they say then the rewards could be huge.”
The pressure to make the big scientific breakthrough on sugar was ramped up further this week as the WHO published new guidelines recommending countries slash recommended intakes by half. “One of the biggest challenges our industry faces is reducing calories while maintaining the taste experience consumers expect from their favourite foods and beverages,” says Abigail Storms, vice president, platform management, sweeteners, at Tate & Lyle. “Now food and beverage manufacturers can contribute to this public health challenge by using Dolcia Prima.”
Allulose itself is not new - in fact it has been around for 70 years and traces are found in figs and raisins. What is new is Tate & Lyle’s ability to produce allulose in commercial quantities from corn. It also has other key advantages over other products in addition to its versatility.
First, unlike aspartame or Tate & Lyle’s own sucralose product Splenda, it’s a natural sweetener, playing to consumer preference for naturally sourced alternatives as they are seen as healthier.
Last year a poll of Marketing Sciences found 38% of the public actively avoid food and drink containing artificial sweeteners because they thought these were worse for their health than sugar.
Then there is the issue of taste. While the proof will be in the pudding (and a myriad of other products it can be used with), its claims to have the taste and mouthfeel of sugar could be a real advantage. While stevia, for example - another naturally sourced sweetener - is increasingly used by soft drinks firms, notably in Coca-Cola Life, it has a strong and divisive aftertaste.
Tate & Lyle claims in its own taste trials consumers ranked low-calorie versions of foods made with Dolcia Prima equally with the full-calorie versions. The product can also be used in conjunction with other existing sweetener options to improve functionality and taste. One industry supplier source involved in her own product’s sugar reformulation programme says “the wins are huge” for the companies that manage to use technology to get around taste and technical barriers. “Experience also tells us the product will have to appeal to the overwhelming customer desire for products to be not just lower calories but also naturally based,” she says.
And early signs suggest manufacturers are keen - Dr Pepper Snapple Group told the Wall Street Journal it wants to use the product “across numerous categories - soft drinks, teas, waters, juices and juice drinks”.The demand for an effective sugar substitute is there - while sales of sugary soft drinks have held relatively stable, sales of juices and smoothies have collapsed in the UK. Category value sales slumped by £69.4m (3.5%) on volumes down 6.5% [Nielsen, year to 8 November 2014].
Tate & Lyle badly needs a successful growth product as supply issues and the falling price of sucralose led to several profit warnings last year and a 20% share price fall since September. But Dolcia Prima will inevitably take some years to get any genuine scale.
Shore Capital analyst Darren Shirley says he is not expecting a bottom line contribution from the product above “single digit millions” for the next few years. “They clearly think it’s a step forward in natural sweeteners, but materially we’re some way away from seeing the excitement generated by the launch of sucralose,” he says. Sucralose will make a minimal contribution to Tate & Lyle given competition from generic versions in China, he adds, noting Tate & Lyle’s own process for producing allulose is likely to eventually be copied as intellectual property “soon gets whittled away”.
Dolcia Prima’s mid-term scale will also be constrained by it being a US-only product at this stage. The US remains Tate & Lyle’s core market and it is unlikely to roll it out to other jurisdictions without establishing it in the US first. There is no suggestion the EU has specific concerns, but approval is not expected any time soon.
If Dolcia Prima does revolutionise the role of non-sugar sweeteners in food manufacturing, it will not be overnight.”We’re not going to be upgrading Tate & Lyle on one launch,” warns Numis analyst Charles Pick. “Food manufacturing is an inherently conservative industry and remains reluctant to change. Dolcia Prime will be quite small in terms of the group context and will take time to get traction.”