Americans love sweet foods. “Despite the sugar bashing, there has never been a better time to be in the sweetener industry,” says Elizabeth Sloan, president of Sloan Trends.
Although the top selling 2019 IRI New Product Pacesetters shifted toward beverages, the top two U.S. New Product Pacesetters in 2018 were candy; Ferrero’s Kinder Joy took in $124.4 million followed by M&M’s Caramel with $120.6 in first-year sales. Number three and four on the list, General Mills Oui by Yoplait and Gatorade’s Flow, provided much-desired sweetness with pure cane sugar/sucrose.
However, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) 2020 Food and Health Survey, 74% of Americans are trying to limit or avoid sugars – although that’s down from 80% in 2019.
Indulgent sweet foods can provide comfort as well. Sloan noted that ice cream sales are up 29% and cookies 14.6% during a period in which Covid-19 started impacting lifestyles (IRI Y/E March 29, 2020 and Y/E June 21, 2020 respectively).
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Thirty-four percent of respondents in both IFIC’s 2019 and 2020 surveys reported they use low/no calorie sweeteners (such as aspartame, sucralose, stevia). Delving further into Gen X data from the 2019 survey, Sloan advises, "The best target age group for artificial sweetener use is the 30-39 cohort and older."
While many consumers do accept synthetic sweeteners, there is a strong preference for “natural” sweeteners, says Julie Johnson, general manager of HealthFocus International. In its 2019 HealthFocus U.S. Trend Study, 66% of respondents identified honey as a “good sweetener,” followed by fruit juices (47%), maple syrup (43%), agave (36%) and stevia (31%). Of the sweeteners provided, the only others receiving responses above 15% were coconut palm sugar and “sugar” (26% each), monk fruit at 24% and Splenda/sucralose at 18%.
Beyond the obvious options for natural sweeteners, leave it to the culinary community to offer innovative natural sweetness solutions.
Culinary sweetener insights
Common ingredients used by chefs for sweetening include jaggery and the Mexican piloncillo, which have different flavor profiles, says Chef Allison Rittman, corporate research chef, Culinary Culture. She also suggests grain syrups such as from rice, oats and barley. These later ingredients have been picked up by formulators of “natural” processed foods.
Chefs also look to food components that not only possess sweetness but are high in ingredients that function as dietary fibers and often prebiotics as well. This group includes malted barley extract, a soluble fiber with a lower glycemic index; Jerusalem artichoke, which is from the fleshy root of a plant in the sunflower family and is high in oligofructose and inulin; and yacon from the tuberous roots of a species of daisy found in the Andes and which is high in fructooligosaccharides, says Rittman.
Rittman mentions other sweeteners that may be familiar to some formulators such as sweet potato syrup “that is clean label, has a high brix, is naturally viscous and can function as a vegan replacement for honey,” and coconut sugar (from the flower). Less familiar is lucuma, a fruit native to Peru and a low glycemic alternative to sugar.
Culinary creativity and skill come into full play if one considers aronia berries, aka chokeberries, “that works well as a blended sweetener,” says Rittman. Then there are lambic beers that are made in open vats where wild yeast can be used to ferment raspberries, apricots and grapes. Sweet, complex ingredients are produced.
However, one of Rittman’s favorite new ingredient is amazake. “Amazake is an all-natural, probiotic rice concentrate made from steamed rice, kōji (Aspergillus oryzae) and water,” she says. The kōji ferments the naturally occurring starches in grains into sugars, and an ingredient with a sweet, neutral flavor profile is created.
Rittman found that replacing 25% of the sugar in a carrot cake muffin with amazake meant no flavor masking nor bulking agents were needed. The muffins had remarkably similar flavor and functionality to the full sugar recipe.
Cookie formula adjustments
In some formulations, however, bulking agents are the needed work horses to complement high-potency sweeteners. Much has been written about the properties of tagatose, allulose and erythritol. Merlin Development took a closer look at what happens when 100% (w/w) of sucrose in a sugar cookie is replaced by each of those substitutes.
As one example, cookies with allulose showed the most browning. Tagatose produced less browning, but still noticeably more than with sucrose or erythritol, says Melanie Goulson, general manager, Merlin Development.
When it came to spread, the sucrose-based cookies displayed significantly greater diameter than any of the sucrose-free cookies even when only 50% of the sucrose was replaced. Merlin Development’s staff then investigated what formulation adjustments could help mitigate the reduced spread when rare sugars and erythritol were used. Cookies with diameters much closer to the 100% sucrose control were produced when butter was increased and flour decreased for a 60%:83% fat to flour ratio, and baking time was decreased.
Although there are many approaches to the formulation of sweetened foods and beverages, consumers’ love affair with sweetness will continue to be a constant.