A natural sweetener with a tenth of sugar’s calories, allulose could be ‘breakthrough’

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Chicago Tribune

Chicago — 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 calories and none of the cavity-causing, insulin-spiking drawbacks.

Allulose, considered a “rare sugar,” in April got the blessing of the U.S. 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.

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“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 center in Hoffman Estates, Ill.

“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 came as large companies face a 2020 deadline to comply with new nutrition labeling 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.

Big food companies like Mondelez, 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.

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% over the 12 months that ended in May, the most of all diet claims, the market research firm said.

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.

Allulose has been commercially available for four years, but the inability to make sugar reduction claims on the labeling kept it from being widely adopted, and it is relatively unknown outside of the diabetes community and ketogenic diet circles.

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 like fructose and glucose.

But unlike those sugars, it is not metabolized by the human body and is excreted almost fully intact in urine, resulting in just 0.4 calories per gram, versus 4 calories 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.

“Sugar is a pretty magical ingredient,” said Nate Yates, sugar reduction lead at Ingredion, an ingredient manufacturer. “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, yogurts, nutrition bars, cereals, beverages and plant-based dairy, likely in combination with stevia for additional sweetening power.

Some groups are concerned that much is still unknown about allulose’s side effects. The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a comment to the FDA, supported not counting allulose as sugar in labeling 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, diarrhea and abdominal pain.”

The FDA, which gave allulose a “generally recognized 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 organization. “I think this is very harmless but everyone is different and it is important for each individual to consider their own tolerance level.”

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 labeling 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.

“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.”