Separating sweetener fact from fiction
Functionality, cost considerations and consumer demands all influence bakers' and snack manufacturers' sweetener selection.
BakingBusiness.com, June 1, 2012
by Lucy Sutton

On the list of ingredients vilified by the media and consumers, many sweeteners appear near the top. The science behind sweeteners tells a different story than the hyperbole spread through news stories, blogs, Twitter and Facebook. John S. White, PhD, is founder and president of White Technical Research. He has spent more than 31 years researching the production, functionality, applications, consumption and metabolism of sweeteners. Audrae Erickson is president of the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), the national trade association based in Washington, DC, that has represented the corn refining (wet milling) industry of the US since 1913. The two offer their perspectives on this
highly sticky situation.

Baking & Snack: What are the advantages and disadvantages of various sweeteners in bakery and snack food applications?

John S. White: Sugar crystallizes to produce a cookie with snap and, in some, the desirable surface cracking. Chewy cookies, snack bars and other baked goods derive their soft and moist texture from high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS retains moisture and resists crystallization after baking and is largely responsible for the popularity of soft, moist cookies.

Breads and baked goods require a fermentable sugar necessary for leavening. In addition to its excellent browning characteristics, HFCS is a highly fermentable nutritive sweetener. It prolongs product freshness in breads, retains moisture in bran cereals and helps keep breakfast bars moist.

What are the formulation challenges associated with various sweeteners?

Dr. White: One of the challenges food and beverage manufacturers have is the cost of ingredients. HFCS’ introduction into the food supply was intended to overcome periodic shortages in sugar availability and the resulting price increases. As an ingredient derived from corn — a dependable, renewable and abundant crop — this sweetener does not exhibit the same availability-related pricing instability.

An important functional difference between HFCS and sugar is its physical form: HFCS is syrup that can be pumped from delivery vehicles to storage and mixing tanks, requiring only simple dilution before use. As a result, it is easy to transport and incorporate into recipes.

How can bakers and snack producers balance the need for cost-effective sweeteners with the increasing consumer trend toward natural products?

Dr. White: HFCS contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and meets the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s requirements for use of the term “natural.” It is a cost-effective sweetener, and it can be used in products labeled “natural.”

What are the functional attributes of HFCS?

Dr. White: Food and beverage manufacturers switched from sugar to HFCS to sweeten products for many reasons: HFCS is stable in acid systems (sucrose is not), providing sweetness and flavor stability characteristics lacking in sugar in similar circumstances; it inhibits microbial spoilage by reducing water activity and extends shelf life through superior moisture control; it retains food freshness; and it is easy to transport and incorporate into recipes.

How does consumer response to sweeteners influence their use in baked foods?

Audrae Erickson: We must first understand the consideration consumers actually give to specific sweeteners. In reality, most consumers look to reduce or avoid any added sugars, not HFCS specifically, according to a study designed and executed by Mintel Research Consultancy. In the study, more than 2,000 consumers were asked a series of questions about their dietary habits. By asking participants open-ended questions, the survey helped determine what was top of mind for consumers with regard to sweeteners.

Specifically, the study found that 17% of consumers were trying to reduce or avoid “sugar or added sugar,” as opposed to only 4% who indicated that they were looking to reduce or avoid HFCS. In the same question, 37% of those surveyed indicated that they were reducing or avoiding calories, while 20% were reducing or avoiding fats and oils.

Accordingly, manufacturers evaluating product formulation should consider the facts before switching. Without the correct information, marketers could make decisions that negatively impact the bottom line such as switching sweeteners and incurring higher costs. Food and beverage manufacturers can visit cornnaturally.com for more information about these facts.

Please discuss the recent move to rename HFCS as corn sugar. What were the goals? When do you expect FDA to act on the request?

Ms. Erickson: To help clarify food product labeling for manufacturers and consumers, we petitioned FDA in the fall of 2010 to allow manufacturers the option of using “corn sugar” as an alternative ingredient name for HFCS. The term “corn sugar” succinctly and accurately describes what this natural ingredient is and where it comes from: corn.

Independent consumer research confirms that the current labeling is confusing to American consumers. For example, despite that HFCS and table sugar contain approximately the same amount of fructose, nearly 58% of consumers incorrectly believed that HFCS has more fructose than table sugar. In fact, the type of HFCS often used in baked goods has less fructose than table sugar.

[Editor’s note: At press time, FDA rejected the bid, noting that it defines sugar as a solid, dried and crystallized food, not a syrup.]

What is your response to those who link HFCS with obesity, diabetes and other health concerns?

Dr. White: We suggest they listen to leading experts such as the American Medical Association, which concluded that “high-fructose syrup does not appear to contribute to obesity more than other caloric sweeteners.” Additionally, the American Dietetic Association concluded: “No persuasive evidence supports the claim that high-fructose corn syrup is a unique contributor to obesity.”

Added sugars are not solely or even significantly responsible for obesity. This serious condition arises from consuming too many calories from all dietary sources over a prolonged period of time with no compensating increase in exercise. During the past 35 years, daily calorie intake for the average American has risen 25%. While energy from cereals/flour and fats rose by 200 and 300 Cal per day, respectively, during this period, energy from sugars increased by only 55 Cal per day, according to US Department of Agriculture figures. At just one-tenth of the total calorie increase, added sugars are clearly not the primary cause of obesity.