The sweet and murky waters of novel sugars and sweeteners

With cane sugar getting a bad rap more than ever, the food industry is continually innovating to produce new alternatives. More and more sugar replacements are making their appearance: monk fruit, coconut sugar, rice syrup and mesquite pod powder, to name but a few! Some call themselves ‘sugar alternatives’ or ‘natural sweeteners’. But can you claim they are ‘sugar free’, ‘natural sugar’, ‘natural sweetener’ or ‘non-artificial’ within the parameters of the law? Are these sweeteners even permitted for use in foodstuffs in South Africa?

First, let’s look at a couple of definitions in our regulations:

  • ‘Total sugar’ is defined as the sum of all intrinsic and added sugars.
  • ‘Added sugar’ means any sugar added to foodstuffs during processing, and includes but is not limited to sugar as defined by the Regulations Relating to the Use of Sweeteners in Foodstuffs under the Act, honey, molasses, sucrose with added molasses, coloured sugar, fruit juice concentrate, deflavoured and/or deionised fruit juice and concentrates thereof, high-fructose corn syrup and malt or any other syrup of various origins.
  • ‘Permitted sweeteners’ means any substance listed as a sweetener in the General Standard for Food Additives (GSFA) of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, or a mixture of two or more thereof.

So, to use a product as a sweetener, it must be allowed by the GSFA. Products such as monk fruit have been approved by the US Food & Drug Administration; but as they have not been listed as permitted sweeteners in Codex, they are not acceptable sweetener(s) in South Africa.

However, if a product is nutritive and imparts sweetness to a food product, it is considered an added sugar, e.g. coconut sugar, mesquite pod powder, rice syrup and other syrups and sugars.

What about making claims?

The ‘sugar free’ claim is only permitted if the product has been tested and proven to contain less than 0.5g total sugar per 100g final product – i.e. added sugar as well as sugars that are naturally present in the ingredients themselves. As a result, these sugar alternatives (or the products that contain them) cannot claim to be ‘sugar free’.

The ‘no added sugar’ claim is not permitted for any product which contains an ingredient that meets the definition of ‘added sugar’, such as coconut sugar, rice syrup or fruit juice concentrate.

‘Natural’ is reserved for products that are “not the work of man or interfered with by man”; therefore, none of the sugars or sweeteners can be called a ‘natural’ sugar or sweetener.

Although you may not label your product a sweetener unless it is listed in Codex as a sweetener, descriptive phrases such as ‘use as an alternative to sugar or honey’, ‘as sweet as sugar’ or ‘sweetens any dish’ are allowed, and may be the way to go when you are marketing your product.

Innovation and regulations don’t always develop in parallel; but FACTS is here to assist you to navigate these murky waters. Contact us for regulatory assistance and training.