NEW YORK (Dow Jones/AP) — NutraSweet Co.'s headquarters in Chicago has a large test kitchen that the company calls ''The Sweet Spot.''
There, the sweetener company's food scientists and researchers study low-calorie blends that hit just the right level of sweetness.
This month the company launches what it calls the ''new'' NutraSweet — a product it describes as a better tasting, no-calorie tabletop sweetener. And NutraSweet says it has more products in the pipeline, including a natural, low-calorie sweetener.
NutraSweet has plenty of company in its hunt for perfect sweeteners. Consumers — particularly aging baby boomers — are getting more fastidious and demanding products that are both healthy and tasty. That has companies like NutraSweet looking for fresh versions of tabletop sweeteners, and it is driving larger companies like Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo to push harder for low- or no-calorie natural sweeteners for their beverages. The hunt for better-tasting sweeteners — and particularly natural ones — likely will spawn a variety of blends in coming years.
''I don't believe there is one holy grail, and I don't believe there is one sweetener that we know of today that is going to come on the marketplace and take all this business,'' said NutraSweet chief executive Craig Petray.
NutraSweet's new tabletop sweetener is a blend of two compounds — aspartame and acesulfame potassium. It is a mix that is intended to have less aftertaste and an increased spike of sweetness at the start. Privately held NutraSweet's latest venture comes soon after it got back a license for the NutraSweet brand name that had been with Merisant Co. NutraSweet recently entered into a new manufacturing and distribution deal with privately held American Sugar Refining Inc., maker of Domino sugar.
The new NutraSweet has been launched in Wal-Mart Supercenters on the East Coast and is scheduled for a national rollout in October. NutraSweet's food scientists are testing blends of low-calorie sweeteners that are based on saccharin. Among the products NutraSweet's scientists are testing is a low-calorie sweetener blend that uses saccharin. The scientists also are trying out various blends for a natural product that the company says could be ready to launch in 2008.
Others are jumping into the fray. Senomyx Inc., which develops flavors, says it is in the process of developing a sweet enhancer, called S2383, that in taste tests has been shown to reduce the required levels of the sweetener sucralose by 75 percent while maintaining the desired taste. The company says the sweet enhancer could potentially allow its food and beverage partners to improve the taste of products and reduce sweetener costs.
Senomyx at the moment has seven food and beverage company partners — Ajinomoto Co., Cadbury Schweppes PLC, Campbell Soup Co., Coca-Cola Co., Kraft Foods Inc., Nestle SA, and Solae LLC. Senomyx spokeswoman Gwen Rosenberg says more than one of these companies has rights to new ingredients her company develops under the sweet enhancer program, but won't name them. She says the company believes that S2383 could be used in all products that sucralose is used in, including tabletop sweeteners, foods and beverages, and over-the-counter health-care products.
Particularly prominent is food and beverage companies' push to develop natural, low-calorie sweeteners.
''There is a consensus that people prefer natural over artificial, whether it is backed by science or not,'' said Nick Fereday, senior economist at consulting firm LMC International.
Sweet 'N Low maker Cumberland Packing Corp., a privately held concern, also says it is working on several natural, low-calorie products. Privately held Merisant — which makes Equal — has created the Whole Earth Sweetener company, whose work is dedicated to developing natural sweeteners and sweetened foods.
Sweet Simplicity was the first sweetener to be developed by Whole Earth in 2006, and it is now sold as a natural, zero-calorie tabletop product. Sweet Simplicity contains erythritol, which is a polyol or sugar alcohol, and fructose. The product is sold in Whole Foods Market Inc. and Wild Oats Markets Inc. stores.
The herb stevia is receiving a great deal of attention in the food and beverage industry. Coke and Cargill recently made headlines on news of a deal to develop and market a natural, zero-calorie sweetener based on the stevia plant. PepsiCo is also researching natural, low-calorie sweeteners for its beverages, including those based on the herb. Stevia doesn't have approval yet from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use as a sweetener.
Artificial sweeteners have regularly been dogged by health concerns. Any new sweeteners — even those touted to be natural — are likely to face a great deal of scrutiny from consumers.
''If stevia itself becomes approved for a food additive, the second big step is (winning) approval within the minds of the consumer,'' said Michael Whitehead, Rabobank Food and Agribusiness research analyst.
Many of the products that are being developed could fail to catch on with consumers, or could be dogged by unexpected flaws. Procter & Gamble Co.'s olestra is a case in point. The faux fat received a great deal of attention in the 1990s. Despite the money and research that the company put into the product, it was dogged by health-related worries. Even when those subsided it never became the blockbuster it was once touted to be.