If you must replace sugar...

Despite lingering debate over sugar’s role in obesity, the food industry is on a tear to reduce or replace sugar in many applications.

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By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor


Sugar, ubiquitous in the food and beverage industry, will not likely lose its vital role as a sweetener. However, in the current environment, nearly every company is striving to develop healthier products by simply reducing or replacing sugar with non-glycemic alternatives. The controversy around the ingredient is bound to persist, at least until consumers adopt healthier lifestyles with physical activity and moderate dietary habits.

The alleged rapid weight loss effects of low-glycemic diets such as Atkins and South Beach led consumers to adopt the notion of "good carbs" and "bad carbs." Consumers classify sugar among the latter. They also increasingly believe weight may be managed simply by reducing sugar intake and balancing "energy intake" with "energy consumption." They believe they can achieve this balance by cutting down on sugar.

Consequently, “reduced sugar,” “no sugar,” and “no added sugar” are gaining momentum as compelling marketing messages. Consumers have been led to believe these descriptors are mandatory for certain categories, such as children’s products and beverages. Sugar-free and reduced-calorie diet beverages garner increasingly larger market shares in the U.S.

The growing market appeal of descriptors such as “smart carbs,” “net carbs,” “net impact carbs” and “effective carbs” has helped sugar replace fat as the nutrient to reduce or eliminate in the product development plans of most food companies. Other marketing messages concurring on the benefits of lowering sugar consumption also have made processors believe that reducing or eliminating sugar is a way to deliver high nutritional value and enhance their market appeal. But it’s not that easy.

Simple sugar makeovers

Successful product reformulations include the direction set by Coca-Cola, Atlanta, which repositioned Minute Maid (www.minutemaid.com) Premium Light orange juice with half the sugar and calories of regular orange juice. The company touts it as “for those who want to reduce caloric intake but still want excellent nutrition.”

General Mills (www.generalmills.com), Minneapolis, employed a blend of sugar and the Splenda brand of suraclose to reduce the sugar content of Trix, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Cocoa Puffs by 75 percent to appeal to health-conscious parents. In that same category, Kellogg Co. (http://www.kelloggs.com), Battle Creek, Mich., enhanced various fruit flavors to transform Froot Loops into a one-third less sugar version without noticeably impacting the taste or by adding artificial sweeteners.

Clever juxtapositions of food products and weight loss diets are now driving the reduced sugar and sugar-free category – and shaping some iconic brands into destination products for specific lifestyles. Established brand marketers such as Kraft, Glenview, Ill., and Anglo-Dutch Unilever are collaborating with coherent weight-loss and management philosophies such as the South Beach Diet and Atkins Diet, respectively, to develop new product offerings.

Kraft in October rolled out a variety of its branded products with a “South Beach Diet recommended” button. Sugar reduction is just one of the adjustments made in some of the products.

Meanwhile up-and-coming brands like the EAS Advantage brand (associated the popular Bill Phillips Body-for-Life program) and Zone Perfect Nutrition (from Harvard nutrition professor Barry Sears) market their lower-sugar fare to their bands of followers.

In the confectionery aisle, candy makers have made headway by repositioning long-existing products that once were aimed squarely at conventional diabetic markets as low-carb or sugar-free.

On the other hand, Armand Hammer, founder of Atlanta-based Innovative Candy Concepts (www.tootarts.com), revamped his product portfolio by converting to formulations that contain no sugar and which are 50-60 percent lower in calories than the originals. The revisions contain no refined sugar and use sucralose, glycerin and acesulfame K (marketed under the brand name Sunette) to enhance sweetening by blends of fruit juice concentrates. Hammer explained that his product developers “decided to stay away from sugar alcohols because of the associated mild laxative effect.”

The sweetener landscape

Refined sugar, one of the foundations of international trade for centuries, is consumed at a per-capita level of around 46 lbs in the U.S. High-potency sweeteners, in contrast, were discovered only in the recent decades, and only a handful have been approved for use in the U.S.

Note to Plant Ops

Because of intense sweetness, high potency sweeteners need to be used in very minute quantities. It is best to request pre-blends of the sweetener with a commonly used food ingredient to match the large-scale environment of standard manufacturing processes and reduce any dosage error. Pre-blending also ensures adequate distribution in the manufacturing mix.

Particle size is a critical attribute when ordering high potency sweeteners. Many vendors can provide custom granulation to reduce dusting and improve flow characteristics during manufacture, as well as ensure quick dissolution in dry mixes when used by consumers.

Consult with vendors to identify the appropriate packaging material for each sweetener blend. Sweeteners of low solubility may be packed in permeable (and less expensive) materials, while highly hygroscopic sweeteners require impermeable packaging materials and controlled conditions to ensure stability.

In general, as with any other powder or dry ingredients, operations involving dry sweeteners and sweetener blends should avoid or minimize exposure to high humidity. Packages with a tight seal and storage under dry, moderate temperatures can help prolong shelf-life, whether in liquid or powdered form.

Sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame K and saccharin are the leaders among the 20 or so high-potency sweeteners in the marketplace. The total retail sugar and sweeteners market in the U.S. is estimated at $2.1 billion.

Replacements for sugars may be nutritive or non-nutritive and have distinctly different temporal characteristics – the way their sweetness peaks or lingers – which affect the perception and ultimately acceptance of the finished food product. Product formulators have, therefore, resorted to blending sweeteners to optimize the various attributes of the individual components.

Sucralose is the fastest growing replacement product. It has successfully penetrated and transformed sweetener market dynamics to focus on health rather than on sweetness or price. Development of customized applications for every food category has helped Sucralose rapidly gain market share – and raised the barrier to entry for other sweeteners.

One of those latecomers is tagatose. It is gaining momentum with the recent FDA approval of claims that tagatose “does not promote tooth decay” or “may reduce the risk of tooth decay.” Developed and patented by Spherix Inc. and manufactured and marketed under license by Denmark’s Arla Foods Ingredients, tagatose stands to gain additionally from its prebiotic functionality.

Arla describes tagatose as a “no-impact carb.” The company employed Sydney University's Glycemic Index Research Service (SUGiRS, www.glycemicindex.com) to conduct clinical testing. Jennie Brand-Miller, possibly the world’s foremost researcher on glycemic index, demonstrated that, compared to glucose, which had glycemic and insulinemic responses of 100 percent, tagatose produced only 3 percent glycemic and insulinemic responses. And it’s just as sweet.

Pasco's Light and Tasty Less-Cal/Less-Carb frozen and ready-to-drink fruit juices were the second product in the world to be launched with tagatose. Unfortunately, the company went bankrupt. The new owners, Johanna Foods Inc., Flemington, N.J., is maintaining the line, which has 70 percent fewer carbs than regular fruit juices.

GTC Nutrition LLC (www.gtcnutrition.com), Golden, Colo., is helping companies understand that careful formulation with a few key ingredients can transform even items like candy and cookies into foods with healthful benefits. GTC Nutrition provides xylitol and NutraFlora to create nutritious and rich tasting food products. More importantly, combining the two balances out xylitol’s cooling effect, while adding sweetness and providing zero effective carbohydrates and only 1.5 Kcal per gram.

For example, Nutballz Inc. (www.nutballz.com), Monroe, Colo., which creates products for people with special dietary needs that can also be consumed by the average consumer, incorporates xylitol in cookies. “Our company is especially concerned with children's health, which is one of the reasons we use xylitol,” says Kyla Duffy, headnut (yes, that’s her title) at Nutballz. “While benefitting from the antibacterial properties of xylitol, kids generally can't even tell that our products are good for them. We achieved just the right amount of sweetness and the cooling sensation – which was cool for our target audience.”

Method to makeover madness

Reformulating foods is tricky to begin with, and reformulation to replace or reduce sugar is one of the trickiest challenges. After all, sugar is used in product development not just because of its sweetness but because of its myriad functionalities and ability to cost-effectively produce an acceptable finished food with appealing taste and aroma.

Taking sugar out of a food product drastically changes its character; often the result is nowhere near the original product. For example, food product developers all over the world have been trying to develop sugar-free versions of cakes where aroma, appearance, texture and taste are critical. Quality cakes should have a rich baked aroma that starts out as the top notes when one bites into it. The characteristic baked aroma is the result of Maillard browning – the interaction of sugar with proteins – during baking to create the rich flavor notes.

Cakes owe their tender texture to the interaction of sugar with the fat during the creaming stage and the transformation of the matrix into a crumb with fine texture during baking. The golden brown crust results from the caramelization of sugar during baking for a rich crunch and a melt-in-your-mouth richness. Product developers find simple replacement of sugar with bulking agents such as maltodextrins and high-intensity sweeteners produces a dense gray-crumbed product that resembles door stops and which lacks the necessary aroma and tenderness.

ADA defends sugars

According to the American Dietetic Assn.: "The claim that nutritive sweeteners have caused an increase in chronic disease (e.g., obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dental carries and behavioral disorders) is not substantiated. Persons can include sugars in their diets and still consume a healthful diet."

The ADA counsels there are no "good foods" and "bad foods," just good diets and bad diets. In other words, all foods have a place in a balanced diet.

Sugar contributes to a number of quality attributes including bulk, texture, taste, crust color and aroma, sweetness and shelf life. Replacement of sugar therefore demands that all the functionalities be addressed to replicate the original food product authentically.

The product development approach of Hammer to create sugar-free candies for adults based on desserts is an excellent roadmap for food product developers seeking to replace some or all of the sugar in their products. Placing great importance on replicating the taste experience of popular desserts, Hammer mapped the various tastes and ingredients that went into each dessert.

Each candy variety started out with emphasis on authentic flavors -– so Key Lime Pie candy tastes of salt, lime, and rich baked crust. Mocha Cappuccino Cake has chocolate top notes, espresso flavor and the creamy notes of cream and milk.

The next step was to duplicate the sensation of sweetness by adjusting levels of sucralose with other sweeteners such as mannitol, a natural sugar alcohol derived from seaweed. “Our marketing angle was clever,” says Hammer. “Instead of positioning it as a low-carb product and getting lost among more mediocre entries, we worked with retailers and emphasized ‘all the taste and none of the guilt’ to convey the essence of the product offering.”

The result has been a success at mass merchandisers such as Wal-Mart, Winn-Dixie and Eckerd and even an appearance on NBC’s “The Today Show.” The tag “zero net carbs” certainly has helped.

Food product developers tend to remain loyal to a sweetener blend that has proven itself. They are realizing, however, that their savings in development time and efforts may be offset considerably by the quality and performance enhancement benefits of customized blends.

Flavor highly impacts product sweetness. Blending and customization are important to optimize temporal profiles in the various line extensions of reduced sugar and sugar-free products. A sweetener system customized for one particular food application rarely produces good results in a different product. Experienced developers will attest that sweetener blends introduced in a beverage or sorbet application do not perform as well in a gelatin or candy application.

A common deterrent to repeat purchase of reduced-sugar and sugar-free versions of traditional products is their intense sweetness and marked aftertaste … probably resulting from lazy or inexperienced developers who overdosed high potency sweeteners to compensate for age-related dissipation. Blending minimizes the lingering effect and enhances shelf-life stability and consistency.

Customized blending can prove to be economical in the long run because the individual sweeteners, in addition to providing the best flavor and taste profiles, often are synergistic. And usually a little bit goes a long way.

The downside of blending is the transformation of the ingredient label into something more like a Merck manual of chemicals. Isomalt and HSHs are particularly useful in such cases and limit the list to just one ingredient.

Long story short, there is no single alternative to sugar. Blending allows for a number of sweeteners to synergistically provide a number of quality attributes including sweetness, flavor, color, viscosity, texture, water activity, binding properties, glycemic effects, crystallizing properties, humectancy, freeze-point depression and cooling effect. If properly designed, the resulting product can actually be preferred over the original glycemic version.

A glossary of sweeteners

Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-k or Ace-K) is synergistic with a number of other sweeteners even though by itself it has a marked bitter and metallic aftertaste. It is relatively heat-stable, is 180 times as sweet as sucrose and has been approved worldwide for a wide number of uses. It is promoted extensively by The Calorie Control Council.

Aspartame, a dipeptide composed of the methyl ester of aspartic acid and phenylalanine, is approximately 200 times sweeter than sucrose and used extensively in the beverage sector. Its stability at high temperature, high pH and high moisture in conjunction with its sweetness profile make it economic and viable for a number of beverage applications.

Cyclamate is about 30 times as sweet as sucrose and its synergy with a number of high-potency sweeteners makes it excellent for sweetener blends. Its use was banned in 1970 in the U.S. It is used extensively around the world and its re-approval in the U.S. is being pursued by Abbott Laboratories and The Calorie Control Council.

Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates (HSHs) include hydrogenated syrups of glucose, maltitol and sorbitol created explicitly for nutritional labels. They are labeled as HSHs when containing less than 50 percent maltitol and as maltitol syrup when containing greater amounts of maltitol. Like corn syrups they may be tailored for various applications by varying their molecular weight distribution. Their sweetness stems primarily from maltitol. Generally, liquids contain 70-85 percent solids, and they also are produced as powders for application as stabilizers and inert bulking agents. HSHs and maltitol syrups are self-determined GRAS in the U.S.

Isomalt is a mixture of disaccharides used extensively to inhibit cold flow in hard candies. It has a relatively high melt point and is half as sweet as sucrose. It is self-determined GRAS.

Lactitol, a lactose-derived non-hygroscopic disaccharide of low solubility, is about 0.4 times as sweet as sucrose and is popularly used panned candies and chocolate compound coatings. It is self-determined GRAS.

Maltitol is a disaccharide with half the calories and 90 percent of the sweetness of sucrose. Many of its characteristics are similar to that of sucrose, making it popular in baked products such as cookies and cakes and in coatings for nutritional bars.

Mannitol, a monosaccharide polyol with high laxation potential (20 grams/day), has low solubility and is non-hygroscopic. Its high melting point (165-169° C) makes it suitable for coating chocolate confections. Mannitol is a food additive under Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

Neotame is produced by the hydrogenation of aspartame and 3,3- Dimethylbutyraldehyde. It is heat stable and approximately 10,000 times sweeter than sucrose. It was recently approved by FDA and is being explored seriously by a number of companies as a viable alternative to sugar.

Saccharin was the first low-calorie sweetener and has been used in the U.S. for more than a century. Extremely stable, it is approximately 300 times as sweet as sucrose, making it very economical. It is widely used as a tabletop sweetener. The FDA proposed banning saccharin in 1977, but Congress placed a moratorium on the ban and saccharin use was allowed with a warning label. The FDA formally withdrew its proposal in 1991. In 2000, Congress passed a bill to remove the warning label.

Sorbitol, a monosaccharide polyol that is 0.6 times as sweet as sucrose, is readily soluble in water, making it invaluable as a plasticizer and humectant in candy applications. It is GRAS under 21 CFR, pt. 184.1835.

Sucralose was approved by FDA in 1998. It is derived from sucrose and is about 600 times as sweet as sucrose. Extremely heat-stable, sucralose has found wide acceptance in “natural” markets.

Tagatose, a monosaccharide made from whey by a patented process, is about 92 percent as sweet as sucrose. It has been commercialized in beverages and is self-determined GRAS in the U.S.

Trehalose is a disaccharide made up of two glucose units. When metabolized, it yields 4 kcal per gram and glucose. It non-cariogenic and is half as sweet as sucrose. Trehalose is self-determined as GRAS.

Xylitol is a pentose monosaccharide valued primarily for its non-cariogenic properties. Its cooling effect and sweetness make it popular in oral-care, chewing gum and mint products. Xylitol is approved as a direct food additive for special dietary purposes under 21 CFR, pt. 173.395

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