When it comes to shipping food ingredients, dry products make economical sense because most liquid ingredients are concentrated sources of water, which otherwise flows practically for free from the tap. But depending upon the application and desired ingredient attributes, sometimes liquids are the best solution.

In the baked foods industry, manufacturers have realized that liquid sweeteners, alternatively referred to as syrups, extracts or even nectars, are often easier to work with and more sanitary than their dry counterparts. Bakers have numerous options from which to choose. The most cost-effective tend to be flavorless and colorless, with their primary purpose to provide sweetness. Examples include corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and invert sugar.

“Our organic medium invert cane syrup is a liquid that provides the manufacturer with an easy-to-handle alternative to dry granulated sugars with additional sweetness,” said Pauline McKee, vice-president of marketing, Wholesome Sweeteners, Sugar Land, TX. “It is liquefied from organic evaporated cane juice and then inverted using organically approved processing methods. The inversion makes the syrup one-for-one sweetness with any sugar at a 76 to 77% syrup concentration. It enhances stability and product shelf life and adds binding properties to baked foods.

“Natural liquid evaporated cane juice is also an easy-to-handle alternative to dry natural granulated sugars,” Ms. McKee added. “It is manufactured by liquefying dry natural evaporated cane juice in purified water.”

In addition to such liquid versions of granulated sweeteners, bakers are exploring the use of premium syrups, which impart more than sweetness. Depending on variety, most are considered natural, and they come in a range of colors and distinct flavor profiles. And as more bakers strive to clean up and simplify ingredient statements, these syrups are finding their way into all types of baked foods.

THE BUZZ IN THE BAKERY. Honey has long been perceived by consumers as sweetness from Mother Nature. In a 2009 research study conducted by the National Honey Board, Firestone, CO, consumers said they were willing to pay a 10% premium for foods baked with honey. According to Bruce Wolk, the board’s marketing director, this is no surprise.

“Honey used in baked foods has so many benefits,” Mr. Wolk said. “It can be used as a sweetener and color enhancer. Honey imparts exceptional flavor to all bakery foods, while providing natural labeling and a clean and simple ingredient statement.

“In addition, honey used in baking applications may improve the functionality of a product, as honey is a natural binder and thickener,” he continued. “Honey allows bakers to extend the shelf life of their products with a natural ingredient because honey’s fructose content holds in a bakery food’s moisture, thus reducing dry products. Honey also has a high acidity (average pH 3.91), which inhibits mold growth.”

The color and flavor of honey differs depending on the bees’ nectar source. “There are more than 300 unique kinds of honey in the United States, originating from such diverse floral sources as clover, eucalyptus and orange blossom, making color and flavor options plentiful,” Mr. Wolk explained. “This simple, yet complex, variety of colors and flavors allows manufacturers to launch complete product lines of honey-sweetened foods, all with different flavor profiles. For example, a product with buckwheat honey offers a robust flavor, while a clover or alfalfa honey provides a simpler, lighter honey taste.” In general, lighter colored honeys are milder in flavor, while darker honeys are stronger.

Bakers need to be aware that because honey caramelizes during baking, adding a golden color to baked foods, oven temperatures may need to be reduced to prevent over-browning, according to Mr. Wolk. Further, because honey is about 25% sweeter than sucrose, on a dry weight basis, and is composed of numerous sugars, including fructose (38.5%), glucose (31%), maltose (7.2%) and sucrose (1.5%), formulas may need to be adjusted. Sometimes this allows a reduction in total sweetener content, which equates to fewer calories per serving.

ACROSS THE BORDER. While most honey is produced domestically, the fastest-growing natural sweetener agave syrup —comes from our neighbors to the south. Its appeal: “Agave syrup is low glycemic and sweeter than sugar,” Ms. McKee stated.

“Our organic blue agave syrups are species specific and made exclusively from central Mexico’s renowned blue agave plant,” she continued. “After growing for five to seven years, a mature blue agave stands several feet tall, and its carbohydrates are concentrated in the plant’s core. After harvesting and milling, inulin-rich juice is collected, cleaned and used to make agave syrup.”

During syrup manufacture, inulin, a dietary fiber that is not sweet by nature, is exposed to heat, thus hydrolyzing the carbohydrates into sweet nectar. Different styles of agave are available, and Ms. McKee explained the manufacturing processes involved. “When making light blue agave nectar, the juice is heated to a high temperature for a short time,” she said. “However, when making raw blue agave nectar, the process uses a lower temperature and is much slower. In this process, the inulin becomes fructose, a slowly metabolizing sugar found in many fruits and vegetables. Filtering determines the blue agave nectar’s flavor and color. The light blue agave is more filtered than its raw amber counterpart.”

Fructose’s browning point is significantly lower than that of sugar, so Wholesome Sweeteners recommended reducing baking temperatures and adding baking time. Additionally, blue agave syrup is sweeter than sugar. Bakers will typically adjust formulas using 25% less agave syrup than the recommended amount of sugar. The total of other liquids is also usually reduced by a third.

“Blue agave syrups will not crystallize, and they dissolve quickly in batters and doughs,” Ms. McKee said. “And depending upon the application, they can add richness, as well as enhance other natural flavors.”

RICH AND THICK. Highly viscous molasses has application in select baked foods. Molasses is a natural by-product of the cane sugar making process; thus, it complements the trend toward natural and clean labeling. It is well recognized as a source of numerous vitamins and minerals, a unique attribute among sweeteners.

“In bakery, its use is limited by its strong earthy flavor notes and dark color” explained Scott Martling, group leader, International Food Network, a product development firm based in Ithaca, NY. “It is also significantly less sweet than sugar, which means the baker either needs to use a combination of sweeteners. As a result, molasses is often added more for flavor and color than sweetness.

“The less sweet syrups such as molasses are great candidates for working with stevia-based sweeteners because they only need a portion of the sweetness replaced to match HFCS or sugar,” Mr. Martling added.

Liquid malt extract tastes a bit like molasses, and it is not as sweet as sugar or honey. It is mostly used to make beer but has application in breads and other baked foods.

“Specialty liquid malt extracts that deliver sweetness plus flavor and color can play a large role when reformulating baked foods for healthier, cleaner labels,” said Judie Giebel, technical services representative, Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., Chilton, WI. “For example, caramel-flavored malt extract is particularly effective in yeast-raised doughs, cookies and other sweet snacks. Used at 1 to 3% in yeast-raised doughs, malt extract delivers sweet, malty/caramel flavor that improves the overall flavor and color of the finished product.

“It is functional as well because it enhances fermentation, improves browning, softens and improves the crumb and extends shelf life,” Ms. Giebel added. “In cookies and other baked snacks, caramel-flavored malt extract can be used in larger amounts for sweetness plus flavor. Malt extracts are natural humectants that retain moisture in baked products, delaying the staling process.”

BLAND AND BEAUTIFUL. Flavorful and colorful natural syrups are not necessarily the best option for all baked food applications, as Mr. Martling pointed out. While bakers recognize the benefits in working with syrups, many are trying to avoid highly refined — and scrutinized — economical syrups such as HFCS.

“A growing trend is to replace refined syrups with grain- and starch-based ones,” Ms. Giebel said. “These sweeteners are made using a natural process that converts starch to sugar using only grain or starch plus natural grain-based enzymes and water.”

Natural sweeteners function at different levels depending on their dextrose equivalent (DE). “If a formulator is looking for more viscosity and less sweetness, an ingredient with a lower DE such as 28 would be a good match,” she explained. “If sweetness is what is required, then 60DE would be the best choice. A natural sweetener with a DE of 42 is a comparable replacement to corn syrup with the same DE.

“These syrups also lend a rich mouthfeel and nice sweetness to baked foods and, at the same time, contribute to a clean label because they are free of additives or preservatives,” Ms. Giebel continued.

WHOLE-GRAIN GOODNESS. “Cereal-based liquid sweeteners such as those derived from malt, rice, rye and wheat are finding new uses in grain-based baked foods and snack foods,” said Joe Hickenbottom, vice-president, sales and marketing, Malt Products Corp., Saddle Brook, NJ. “The recent whole-grain diet has increased awareness of grains, and bakers are rapidly introducing whole-grain products into the marketplace. What they are learning is that whole-grain products often require some flavor modifications.

“Most whole grains introduce a bitter note that can often be buffered by use of a compatible syrup, which provides flavor, color, body, fermentable carbohydrates and, of course, sweetness,” he continued. “Compared with sugar or HFCS, however, the sweetness rating of the cereal-based liquid sweetener is a little more than half as sweet. Honey, agave, invert sugar and molasses, on the other hand, are rela- tively as sweet as sugar and HFCS, or sometimes even sweeter.”

Usage levels of the cereal-based liquid sweeteners in whole-grain breads, rolls, bagels and crackers vary according to the product. Mr. Hickenbottom observed that, in general, baked items benefit by the addition of 1 to 3%, based on flour weight. These amounts are sufficient to mellow the wholegrain bitterness as well as provide the previously mentioned attributes.

“Any of the cereal-based sweeteners, used in combination with sweeter sweeteners or alone, depending on desired flavor and color of the finished product, provides the opportunity for bakers to enhance their whole-grain items to gain greater customer acceptance,” Mr. Hickenbottom stated.

GLUTEN-FREE OPTIONS. In addition to the whole-grain trend, formulating gluten-free continues to be a major driver of innovation. When going gluten-free, all ingredients must be evaluated and proven to be free of gluten, including sweeteners.

A gluten-free natural sweetener that functions as a malt extract substitute is now available from Briess. This white sorghum syrup is an all natural sweetener that mimics the functionality of malt extract to promote browning in cereals, snack foods and baked foods.

“It is enzymatically produced from the starchy heads of the grain, not the cane, of the white sorghum plant,” Ms. Giebel explained. “[Because it is] a natural sweetener with large amounts of maltose, we originally developed it for the production of gluten-free beer. It is characterized by the same reducing sugars and amino acids as malt extract, which promote browning. This new application as a browning agent in baked foods greatly expands the capability of formulators to develop more eye appealing gluten-free products.”

In conclusion, syrups can be used in all types of baked foods to not only sweeten but also to perform other functions. Substitution for sugar and usage levels is sweetener and application specific.