Are Sugars the New Public Enemy No. 1?

Now that food and beverage companies will have to highlight added sugars on their new Nutrition Facts panels, product developers must keep them at a minimum. But How? Downsizing packages is one way, sugar substitutes are another. But consumers don't just want the new sweeteners to reduce calories; taste matters above all else.

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

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Sugar has never been such a public enemy. Blamed for obesity, contributing to heart disease, diabetes and other health threats, sugar is the cause of additional taxes on sodas, is what consumers are trying to eliminate from their diets, and has even been given a second line on the upcoming Nutrition Facts panel.

Added sugars will be called out on a separate line on the FDA's updated Nutrition Facts panel, which originally was to become the rule this July 26 but has been delayed indefinitely, probably till January 2020. Whole fruit, fruit pieces, dried fruit, pulps and purees (which contain intrinsic sugars) are not considered added sugars. If a fruit juice blend is reconstituted such that the sugar concentration is less than what would be expected in the same amount of the single-strength juice, the added sugar declaration would be zero. But if the sugar concentration is greater, the amount of the excess sugar must be declared as added sugars.

Such a scarlet letter may prompt some companies to reformulate products to minimize how much sugar has been added. Or if they find a suitable way to swap sugar with alternative sweeteners, formulators may face higher costs, supply issues or consumer challenges tied to these "artificial" ingredients.

Still, consumers admit they can't live without a sweet taste. So researchers at food giants, startups and universities are looking for new ways to make foods sweet without putting people's health at risk.

"It’s very difficult, very complex," admits Nestlé scientist Olivier Roger, who’s spearheading a global sugar-reduction program. "We still don’t have the magic solution that would replace sugar.”

Nestle's close, though, as researchers have restructured sugar so that 40 percent less could be used in certain products. This hollowed-out sugar molecule dissolves rapidly when eaten but is perceived to be just as sweet, allowing consumers to taste it immediately. But that's the problem. The structure dissolves in water, which is present in most foods. Luckily for Nestlé, chocolate is one of the few foods that's not aqueous.

Hershey KissesA study released by the Consumer Goods Forum (www.theconsumergoodsforum.com) found the 102 food companies it surveyed reformulated more than 180,000 of their products to "support healthier diets and lifestyles, and address public health priorities."

Hershey will "kiss" a lot of sugar goodbye with its goal of reducing the calorie counts in half of its individually wrapped standard- and king-size candy bars to 200 calories or fewer by 2022. To do this, Hershey will reformulate some treats, introduce new ones and adjust the sizes of others.

Juice brands are refining their offerings, and marketing and processing their products in different ways. “When we started, I think our average juice had roughly 25g of sugar per bottle,” Suja Juice CEO and co-founder Jeff Church recently told BevNET. “Today, it’s about 10g. We’ve listened to what consumers have told us, which is that they don’t want so much sugar unless there’s a reason to have it. So we’ve been on a steady slope of innovating, ideally with less than 10g of sugar per bottle in mind.”

Suja JuiceReplacing conventional sugar with non-nutritive sweeteners can be difficult if the sweetness values or physical and chemical properties of the substitutes differ greatly from those of sucrose. Liquid sweeteners like honey and agave offer flavor and texture and, like sucrose, can assist with functionality like caramelization and color, fermentation/preservation, tenderness, creaming and possibly bulking. But such liquid sweeteners don't work for everything, and are deemed "added sugars" in the final Nutrition Facts update ruling.

Sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, erythritol and maltitol, are used as both natural sugar substitutes and food additives. They're popular mainly due to their lower caloric values and glycemic indexes as well as anticariogenic effects. Their sweetness varies from 25 to 100 percent as sweet as sugar and often are combined with other sweeteners in sugar-free candy and chewing gum, cookies and other treats. Sugar alcohols sometimes come with gastrointestinal side effects, however, the most common problem being bloating and diarrhea.

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