The quest for a naturally sweet hard cider is like trying to find a four-leaf clover, something sought by many but only found by a few. There are a number of methods, like keeving and nutrient deprivation, that can be utilized. But, while these work, they are not always the simplest method and may not always end in success. This is why sulfite (sulphite) and sorbate are often employed as preservatives. These inhibit yeast and bacteria function that would otherwise process sugar added to a cider for sweetening. Sulfite and sorbate additions are relatively easy to manage, which makes them an attractive process for creating sweet cider. However, if you are like me and want to avoid preservatives when possible, you might be wondering if there is another method.
You could use low calorie artificial sweeteners, like aspertame, saccharin, and sucralose, which are not fermentable by yeast and bacteria. They are also not something I would recommend. The main reason is because there are natural products that provide the same performance. J.C. Fry noted that there are over 100 naturally occurring sweet compounds(1). The challenge is finding a process that is cost effective to produce most at commercial scale. However, several current and potential compounds have been evaluated. I thought it would be interesting to explore some of these identified by Dr. Fry to assess whether they could be used to produce sweet hard cider that while maybe not residual, would still be natural and potentially even organic. Let’s explore the following.
- Stevia (Steviol Glycosides)
- Monk Fruit (Lo Han Guo)
Small amounts of erythritol can be found naturally in some pears, grapes, and watermelons. It is also created through fermentation. Trichosporonoides megachiliensis and Moniliella pollinis being the most common fungi used(1) in the creation of erythritol. The fermentation aspect means that it can also be naturally found in some fermented foods and drinks like wine, beer, cider, and cheese. Fermentation is the normal production method and can result in a product that is close to 100% pure. Erythritol is a monosaccharide polyol. Other common polyols are sorbitol and xylitol. Sorbitol is naturally occurring in apples and pears with pears usually having higher levels. A positive aspect of erythritol is that it has a low molecular mass compared to most polyols. That means the human body absorbs it more quickly. This makes it is less likely to cause digestive distress, a common issue with most polyols. The human body can also absorb large amounts of erythritol. These characteristics make it the best tolerated of the polyols. Erythritol is considered GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) by the United States and accepted for use in Europe but has limits on how much can be added to beverages.
Erythritol is noted as having a clean taste very similar to standard sucrose. However, the sweetening ability of erythritol is only considered to be about 60% of sucrose. This is similar to what I found in some of my trials with erythritol. You will need to add about 1.4-1.5 times the amount erythritol to get a similar sweetness relative to sugar. The good news is that its not going to ferment. Like most polyols, the yeast commonly used to ferment cider will not process erythritol so your sweetness is natural and stable. It is also considered zero or low calorie since it is below 0.2 kcal/g(1), which might also help your waistline a little.
Stevia (Steviol Glycosides)
Another common natural sweetener is Stevia. To be more precise, there 10 principal steviol glycosides that come from the stevia plant, Stevia rebaudiana(1). While stevia is commonly used in Asia, the plant is actually native to Paraguay. The glycosides, which create the sweetness come from the leaf of the plant. The most abundant glycoside is stevioside followed by rebaudioside A(1). Rebaudioside A (Reb A) is the most desired because it is considered the best tasting (least aftertaste). But, steviol glycosides are known to have undesirable aftertastes, which are often described as licorice or bitter. These flavors increase as the concentration increases. You will note the stevia has a higher potency (weight/weight) compared to sucrose. One interesting finding has been the benefit of blending stevia, especially rebaudioside A with other sweeteners. Erythritol and rebaudioside A blends have been found to work extremely well together. They often produce a sweetness that is similar to sucrose and very stable.
Stevia is recovered from the leaves of the stevia plant versus the flowers. In fact, once the plant starts to flower, the glycosides begin reducing so the goal is to harvest the leaves before flowering begins(1). Most commercial operations grow their plants from cuttings versus seeds and most are grown close to the equator as low sunlight levels increase plant flowering. The leaves are harvested and dried before processing. The leaves are steeped, like tea, before being passed through a resin filter that collects them. Alcohol is used to extract the glycosides from the resin before this is spray dried. The resulting crystals are normally over 97% pure. Stevia is not fermentable by most yeast and bacteria, making it another option for making a sweet hard cider. It also does not impact blood glucose levels. Like erythritol, you can obtain organic versions of stevia if desired.
Monk Fruit (Lo Han Guo)
Monk fruit, also known as Lo Han Guo (LHG), is another natural sweetener. It comes from the fruit of the Siraitia grosvenorii plant. This is a vining plant in the in the gourd family. It has been cultivated mostly in China and Thailand for over a thousand years. The traditional process was to fire dry the fruit, which was ground or shredded and added to food or drink. More modern methods dry the fruit and use filters and resin to extract the glycosides. The slurry is usually spray dried yielding in a powder that is off-white.
Monk fruit is considered GRAS by the US since 2010 and it has a long history of use in Asia. Dr. Fry noted that it is approved as a natural flavor enhancer in the EU but had not been approved as a sweetener. Some quick checking showed it is under evaluation and articles from 2019 indicated that it was expected to approved as a sweetener in the EU. It is not fermentable by most yeast and bacteria so it will work as a stable sweetening agent while not spiking blood glucose or contributing calories. Like stevia, it is known to have a licorice aftertaste with a mild bitterness(1). The onset of sweetness from monk fruit is slower than stevia but also lingers longer. Mixing monk fruit and stevia can therefore be beneficial as the stevia provides early sweetness and the monk fruit’s lingering sweetness can cover the bitterness from the stevia. It’s potency is similar to stevia though some reports indicated it can be higher than stevia so test your additions and scale it up.
Tagatose (C6H12O6) has the same chemical compounds as fructose (C6H12O6) but just arranged differently. It can be found naturally in apples, citrus and cacao but is mainly extracted from lactose found in milk. The extraction process can result in a product that is almost 100% pure. While it doesn’t spike blood glucose or insulin(1), it does carry a 1.5kcal/g calorie content. This is lower than the 4.0kcal/g associated with glucose and other sugars. The sensory characteristics and potency (~90%) of tagatose is similar to glucose so it can be used at an almost 1:1 substitution ratio.
With regards to its use in sweetening cider, I was unable to find any research or data on whether yeast can ferment it. This is my concern given its similarity to other reducing sugars. But, fermentation of lactose by yeast can create tagatose so it may be stable. However, tagatose is a prebiotic. This means it feeds the probiotic lactic acid bacteria found in the human intestines. This again makes we wonder if LAB in cider would break it down during aging. It is also subject to Maillard reactions and will caramelize at high temperatures. Like many polyols, it can also cause digestive distress if consumed in large concentrations. While tagatose is not a sweetener I have found in the US, others countries may have it and it would be interesting to trial. If you do, please leave a comment on your results.
As I noted above, there are over 100 other natural sweeteners that have the potential to provide natural low calorie and potentially non-fermentable sweetening option. Most are just not commercially viable but who knows what the future may hold. Maybe thaumatin, glycyrrhizin, monatin, brazzein, or another yet to be explored natural compound will offer future opportunities to make sweet hard cider.
(1) J.C. Fry (Connect Consulting), Natural food additives, ingredients and flavourings: Natural low-calorie sweeteners, Woodhead Publishing, Chapter 3, 2012
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