The Herbaland difference, why we chose to go sugar-free
One of Herbaland Naturals’ most fundamental core values is inclusivity. Inclusivity within our company and inclusivity for our customers. We strive to make all our products sugar-free, vegan, allergen-free, and non-GMO so that everyone can take them, regardless of any dietary restrictions they might have. The nutritional gummy business is relatively new: it’s only been around since the 1990s! The first products in the market were formulated with sugar and gelatin, similar to the snack/candy gummies that already had a solid customer base. Unfortunately, this was not a good option for vegan/vegetarian and diabetic people, or even for people who were looking to lose weight or consume less sugar in their diet. It wasn’t until 2009 (also the year that Herbaland Naturals was founded!) that manufacturers started exploring and using other ingredients in their formulations. Most notably, they started using pectin (a fruit-based gelling agent) instead of gelatin. People consuming plant-based diets were finally able to buy nutritional gummies, but at this time sugar-based gummies were still the norm.
From the inception of our company, we knew that we wanted to produce sugar-free products, but the path wasn’t easy or straightforward. Sugar plays a key role in gummy formulations; it not only provides sweetness to the final product – it’s also the main bulking agent. This means that sugar is partly responsible for the weight and texture (in combination with the gelling agent) of the gummies. Admittedly, it is tricky to find a low/non-caloric sweetener that can be used in high enough quantities to act as a bulking agent without providing overpowering sweetness to the final product. After a lot of trial and error and testing different formulations, all while keeping in mind Health Canada’s guidelines and regulations, we developed a combination of ingredients that we use to make our delicious sugar-free gummies. To better understand these ingredients, we’ve divided them into 3 categories: syrups, solid aids, and sweeteners. Let’s dive into what they are and how they work together to make an amazing product.
- Soluble Tapioca Fibre
Also known as resistant maltodextrin, soluble tapioca fibre is an ideal ingredient to use as a bulking agent in sugar-free gummies. This syrup is obtained from non-GMO tapioca starch that is extracted from cassava roots. Apart from its technical benefits, using this ingredient naturally introduces more fibre into our products and into your diet!
To better understand how this ingredient works in our body, we first need to understand what resistant maltodextrins are. Maltodextrins are complex carbohydrates that are made up of simple sugars strung together (kind of like chains of sugars). Resistant Maltodextrins are made by taking starch from different sources (such as corn, potato, wheat, tapioca, or rice) and exposing it to an enzymatic process that breaks down the sugar chains into smaller pieces. After that, they are reconstructed back to long chains. As with most things in life, once you break something apart, it is hard to put it back together exactly as it was before. The same concept applies to maltodextrins; the connections made between the small pieces of sugars are different than the original ones. Because they are not the same, our body cannot digest them, which makes these carbohydrates resistant to enzymatic digestion in the body. If our body cannot digest them, they also cannot be absorbed and thus won’t increase our blood glucose. This effect was studied in a recent randomized cross-over controlled trial, where the researchers found that ingested tapioca resistant maltodextrin was minimally digested and consequently the body’s blood glucose and insulin levels where lower than the levels obtained when the participants consumed an equal amount of glucose1. Based on our research of this product, we concluded that soluble tapioca fibre is an ideal sugar-free ingredient that will provide bulk to our gummies and introduce fibre to make them extra nutritious.
Allulose is a novel sweetener that was first discovered in the 1940s in wheat. It is a natural sugar that is found in very small quantities in foods such as figs, raisins, and wheat. It wasn’t until the 1990s – when a professor from Kagawa University in Japan discovered an enzyme that converts fructose to allulose – that its first commercial use began. This syrup contains 10% of the calories found in cane sugar and is 70% as sweet. Although allulose is not yet globally approved for commercial use in food and beverages around the world, the US FDA recognizes it as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) as a sugar substitute. Health Canada also allows its use in Natural Health Products.
There have been multiple studies done on the health benefits and safety of consuming allulose. Overall, these studies have shown that the intake of allulose does not increase blood glucose2; in fact, if people consume it in combination with sugar, it decreases blood glucose and insulin (compared to eating sugar on its own)3. Researchers have also found that consuming allulose stimulates the production of hormones that make you feel satiated, which helps with appetite control4,5. Studies have also shown that it is safe for people with type 2 diabetes and high blood cholesterol to consume 15 g of allulose a day for 48 weeks6,7.
Isomalto-oligosaccharides (IMO for short) can be used instead of allulose when needed. For example, we use it for our Snacks with Benefits line, as allulose is not permitted in food products in Canada (instead only permitted for natural health products).
One important thing to keep in mind when using this syrup is the sugar content. In the past, IMO was classified as a source of fibre and would only contribute 5 g of sugar per 100 g of product (ideal for sugar-free formulations!). However, in the last few years, regulations have changed due to research that has found that this carbohydrate is metabolized in the human body and thus is a source of sugar, with effects on blood glucose equal to those produced by the consumption of conventional sugar8. Although most of our gummies do not contain IMO, the ones that do have it in low quantities to ensure that the products are still sugar-free (for supplements) or low sugar (for snack gummies).
Solid aids – Sugar Alcohols
Solid aids are ingredients that also help provide bulk and texture in our gummy formulations. In addition, they contribute to the sweetness of the final product. The solid aids that we use are molecules classified as polyols. Also known as sugar alcohols, polyols are single carbohydrates that contain an alcohol molecule attached to them. Some examples of sugar alcohols are xylitol, erythritol, maltitol, and glycerine (in the US).
There is some confusion and controversy regarding the classification of sugar alcohols; some people say they are artificial sweeteners while others state that they are natural. Let’s break down these terms to better understand what sugar alcohols are. Natural sweeteners are those that are naturally found in nature (e.g., sugar, fructose, honey). Artificial sweeteners are man-made chemicals that have a sweet taste to them and are not found in nature (e.g., sucralose, aspartame, saccharin). A less known classification is that of natural synthetic sweeteners. Sugar alcohols are found naturally in nature, but in very low concentrations. Therefore, to make enough product to have an impactful place in the sweeteners market, manufacturers synthetically create them by fermenting natural sugars found in plants9. For example, our organic erythritol is obtained from organic glucose from non-GMO corn. It is still considered to be natural because the molecule obtained from this fermentation process is identical to the one found in nature. From a health perspective, sugar alcohols have a lower glycemic index and produce a lower insulin response than sugar, which is ideal for diabetic people and those who are following a low carb/low sugar diet10.
There are some people that are sensitive to sugar alcohols in their diets and can experience gastrointestinal disturbances such as bloating, cramps, pain, and diarrhea. These effects are more prevalent with people that eat products with xylitol and maltitol. There is a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation for this side effect – bear with me while we dive into human physiology. Just like other carbohydrates, sugar alcohols come in different sizes. Xylitol and maltitol are bigger, which means that they cannot pass through our intestinal wall and will not be absorbed. If we eat a very high amount of these sugar alcohols, they will stay in our gut and create a scenario called “osmotic diarrhea”11. This means that the sugar alcohols are drawing water from outside the intestinal wall to inside. In addition, they also inhibit the normal absorption of water and electrolytes. Furthermore, the unabsorbed sugar alcohols can be fermented by intestinal bacteria, which leads to gas formation12. The result of these physiological responses is that they will create very loose stools. Sugar alcohols are not the only compounds that produce osmotic diarrhea; it can also happen when we consume laxatives, poorly absorbed milk, or even very high amounts of sugar. Erythritol has a smaller size than the other sugar alcohols; it can pass through the intestinal wall and be absorbed into the blood stream and excreted in the urine unchanged, which explains why most people are able to tolerate erythritol well, even at high intakes.
Erythritol has been the source of a lot of controversy due to the release of a research paper that found an association between high concentrations of erythritol in the blood and risk of heart disease13. Since we are using erythritol in several of our products, we thought it essential to review this article, do more research, and determine whether it was cause for concern. The link between erythritol intake and cardiovascular disease risk in this research article was determined using association. This means that, in a group of people, it was found that those that had a high risk for cardiovascular disease also had high levels of erythritol in their blood. Whether causation can be established, (i.e., cardiovascular disease was directly caused by erythritol intake), requires further research. We found that there were some confounding variables that were important to keep in mind to better put this research into context. For example, they recruited participants that already had a high risk of cardiovascular disease, which limits the applicability of the results to the general population. They also did not collect data on the dietary intake of erythritol – therefore, they don’t know how much erythritol the participants already had in their body prior to the study. Another important point to consider is that we also naturally produce erythritol in our bodies (we can convert glucose into erythritol14), which was not accounted for in this research article. In addition, the erythritol serving used in this study was of 30 g in a day. On average, our gummies that have erythritol contain between 1-2 g per serving. There are other studies that have been published on the health effects of consuming erythritol, and there has been extensive research done in regard to the absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion of erythritol by the human body, as well as long and short term studies regarding its toxicity and potential reproductive, developmental, genotoxic, and carcinogenic effects in animal studies12,15. These studies conclude that the consumption of erythritol does not produce evidence of toxicity, even at very high intakes. Based on this information, we have decided to keep our gummies as they are, but we will definitely keep up to date on the research!
Coming back to our sugar-free gummy formulations, we discovered that the combination of our syrups and sugar aids do not provide the same sweetness level as traditional sugar-based gummies. This is the reason we also use high intensity natural sweeteners. High intensity sweeteners are sugar alternatives that are around 200 times sweeter than sugar. Since we only need to add a small amount, they contribute few to no calories to gummy formulations. Stevia leaves contain an extract called rebaudioside A (Reb-A) that is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. Because of this intense sweetness, it is commonly used in combination with other sweeteners, such as erythritol and xylitol. Monk fruit extract is obtained from the Luo Han Guo fruit, also known as Buddha fruit. To obtain the sweetener, manufacturers remove the seeds and skin of the fruit and then crush it to collect the juice. The juice can be either used as is or dried into a concentrated powder. This extract is between 100-250 times sweeter than sugar. The compound responsible for its sweetness is called mogroside V.
The art of making sugar-free gummies is something that Herbaland Naturals has been perfecting over the last 14 years. We are now Canada’s largest nutritional gummy manufacturer and continue to grow. Our highly experienced Research and Development department is always looking for new and novel ingredients to further improve the taste, texture, and health claims of our gummies to ensure that our customers get the best products out there.
Dr Katia Caballero, Herbaland R&D
My name is Dr. Katia Caballero, I have a PhD in Human Nutrition and experience in the fields of food science, biotechnology, and clinical nutrition. I currently work at Herbaland Naturals as a Research and Development Technician, looking to find new and innovative ways to make gummies healthy, nutritious, and fun.
- Astina, J. & Sapwarobol, S. Attenuation of glycaemic and insulin responses following tapioca resistant maltodextrin consumption in healthy subjects: a randomised cross-over controlled trial. J. Nutr. Sci. 9, e29 (2020).
- Braunstein, C. R. et al. A Double-Blind, Randomized Controlled, Acute Feeding Equivalence Trial of Small, Catalytic Doses of Fructose and Allulose on Postprandial Blood Glucose Metabolism in Healthy Participants: The Fructose and Allulose Catalytic Effects (FACE) Trial. Nutrients 10, 750 (2018).
- Franchi, F. et al. Effects of D-allulose on glucose tolerance and insulin response to a standard oral sucrose load: results of a prospective, randomized, crossover study. BMJ Open Diabetes Res. Care 9, e001939 (2021).
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- Tanaka, M., Hayashi, N. & Iida, T. Safety evaluation of 12-week continuous ingestion of D-allulose in borderline diabetes and type 2 diabetes. Fundam. Toxicol. Sci. 6, 225–234 (2019).
- Tanaka, M., Kanasaki, A., Hayashi, N., Iida, T. & Murao, K. Safety and efficacy of a 48-week long-term ingestion of D-allulose in subjects with high LDL cholesterol levels. Fundam. Toxicol. Sci. 7, 15–31 (2020).
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