Less sugar in the diet equals lower body weights and healthier blood glucose levels. Consumers make the connection easily, but doctors will tell you that it’s not that simple. Even so, calls from health advocates get louder all the time to cut the amount of added sugars in processed foods.

Bakers won’t find it easy to answer this challenge because sugar ­provides their products with functionality and flavor. “The role of sugars in baked foods is complex,” said Carl Jaundoo, PhD, associate program coordinator, Roquette America, Inc., Geneva, IL. The sweetening alternative selected must have chemical properties similar to those of the sugar being replaced.

Why sugar? Why now? Health watchdog groups, fresh from the fight to drive out trans fats, now aim their guns at sugar. Linking America’s soaring obesity rates to consumption of sugary foods, some government and consumer groups are taking an increasingly hard line.

Such anti-sugar pressure now drives big changes in the beverage industry and could impact bakers as well, according to Kerry Kenny, technical group, US Niutang Chemical, Chino, CA. “The key is working with baking and snack formulators on developing and bringing to market equivalent-tasting products,” she said.

Other market advantages also await successful sugar-sparing applications as consumers seek positive health gains from the reformulated foods. “The future looks very promising for sweetening ingredients that offer more benefits than just sweetness,” said Joseph O’Neill, president and general manager, BENEO, Inc., Morris Plains, NJ. “Leading food trends include categories such as natural ingredients, digestive health, weight management and energy management — all of which can be addressed in part by sweet ingredients solutions.” He urged formulators to look beyond sweetness profiles and seek ingredients with nutritional benefits, too.

Identify the difficulties

“We have to remember that sugar plays multiple roles in baked foods and snacks,” said Melanie Goulson, Truvia applications manager, Cargill, Minneapolis. “It is involved with texture, spread, browning and sweetness.” Just cutting the amount of sugar in bakery formulations ­alters both the baker’s yields and the consumer’s expectations.

Sugar is, after all, a major bakery ingredient. “Sugar obviously makes up a significant percentage of certain bakery products,” observed Troy Boutte, PhD, group manager, bakery/fats and oils, DuPont Nutrition & Health, New Century, KS. “So, besides the obvious function of ­providing sweetness, sugar also provides a structural component.”

Part of that structure is sheer bulk, especially in cake products. Flour-based applications may only allow partial replacement of sugar, and even then, the formulator must be careful to retain the physical and chemical characteristics of sugar. “But with fillings and toppings, you can make even more substantial reductions,” said John Fry, PhD, Truvia baking consultant, Cargill. “You can strip out all the sugar if you want.”

When replacing sugar in cake and sweet bakery applications, it is not just the sweetness but functionality that is affected. Because sugars attract moisture, their presence ­directly relates to product tenderness, shelf life, staling and browning, according to Melissa Riddell, food scientist, technical services, Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, IL. “When sugar is removed from a moisture-dependent system, the solids-to-moisture ratio is changed, thus ­altering the product’s overall ­quality,” she said.

In cookies, sugar represents up to a quarter of the total formulation. “Reducing sugar by 30 to 35% requires something to be added in its place,” said Sharon Bosch, technical group, US Niutang Chemical. “The difference may be a combination of various bulking agents such as sugar alcohols, fiber, more flour or additional liquid.”

For the most part, yeast-raised products don’t face such difficulties because much of the sugar in the formula is fermented by the yeast. Dr. Boutte explained, “For instance, typical pan bread contains about 8% sugar solids, but after fermentation, only about 2 to 3% of the sugar remains, even though the nutrition label doesn’t reflect that.”

Set the strategy

To make a reduced-sugar claim ­under FDA labeling rules, the product must carry 25% less sugar than the regular version, while sugar-free products can contain no more than 0.5 g of sugar per serving.

“You actually get the best results if you don’t remove all the sugars,” Ms. Goulson said. “For flour-based applications, a reduction of 25 to 50% helps keep the beneficial functionalities and taste but achieves the goals of sugar reduction.”

How the product will be marketed sets the formulating strategy. If the goal is a sugar-free product, then its formulation will need bulking agents to compensate for the missing sugar, according to Ms. Kenny. “Products not marketed as low-calorie can use high-intensity sweeteners as a cost-reduction initiative and, most likely, will not require additional ingredients,” she said.

To meet those FDA labeling thresholds, most formulations will team high-intensity sweeteners with bulking agents. High-potency sweeteners comprise synthesized ­materials such as acesulfame-K, aspartame and saccharine and natural materials including stevia and monk fruit extract. Medium-sweetness ingredients can provide both moderate sweet flavor and bulk, and some even act as prebiotics and dietary fiber. Polyols, also called sugar alcohols, are part of the mid-range group, along with inulin and other fructooligosaccharides (FOS). Lowest in calories and blandest in flavor, polydextrose and resistant starch are used as bulkers.

Among the newest high-potency sweeteners to become commercially available, stevia extracts are 150 to 300 times as sweet as sugar, according to Brandon Olson, director of R&D, Prinova, Carol Stream, IL. “That means you can remove a portion of the sugar and only need to add in a small amount of stevia,” he explained. “You typically remove 30 to 50% of the sugar — and calorie — content and maintain a similar, if not identical, taste profile.”

Stevia replaces the sweetness deficit caused by removing sugar and is used at an extremely low level, 0.025 to 0.05% at most. “The amount is absolutely minute, at the ppm level,” Dr. Fry said. But the formulator must cover for the missing weight and bulk of sugar. He recommended erythritol, maltitol, inulin and polydextrose for filling such needs.

Replace the bulk

Cake systems demonstrate the bulking properties of sugar, which makes up about 30% of the batter weight. “Removing all the sugar without replacing the bulk is not practical if the eating quality is expected to stay the same,” Dr. Boutte said. Low-ratio cakes, an older product style, contain 30% less sugar than modern cakes. Because of the lower starting level for sugar, its removal would cause problems in eating quality and flavor. Dr. Boutte recommended that bakers adjust such formulations with polydextrose to account for the lost bulk of the sugar and then ­replace sugar’s tenderizing effect with an enzyme crumb softener.

To bulk up bakery applications, formulators can use one carbohydrate (resistant starch) to replace the solids provided by another (sugar). “Starch-based ingredients provide bulking, which maintains the level of solids,” explained Ibrahim Abbas, PhD, senior R&D manager, Penford Ingredients, Centennial, CO.

Jennifer Stevens, marketing manager, Penford Ingredients, added, “Non-nutritive sweeteners need to be used to bring the sweetness to a full-sugar sweetness level because they do not contribute sweetness.”

Balance the polyols

Among sugar alternatives, polyols provide sweetness and bulk. “When sweetness is the key attribute, it is essential that the bulking characteristics of crystalline or liquid sugars be balanced by alternative sweeteners,” Roquette’s Dr. Jaundoo said.

These ingredients vary in sweetening power. Xylitol has the same sweetness as sucrose while maltitol — the most widely used sugar replacer in baked foods — is 90% as sweet as sucrose, Dr. Jaundoo noted. “From the wide variety of sugar alcohols available, food formulators can customize sweetener solutions to create sugar-free or reduced-sugar products to match the equivalent sugar product,” he said.

Crystalline maltitol syrup can replace sugar 1:1 based on its crystal structure, molecular weight and relative sweetness, while maltitol syrup will substitute for corn syrup or other liquid sweeteners, depending on desired viscosity or crystallization control, according to Eric Shinsato, technical sales support manager, Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, IL. “The only shortcoming of polyols is that they do not contribute to browning and, thus, do not add the caramelized notes typically associated with sugar,” he said.

Texture enters the picture as an aspect of overall product structure, and the choice of polyol can help. Formulators can develop innovative products by working with polyols in different combinations, according to Dr. Jaundoo. “For example, varying the amount of maltitol syrup, in combination with crystalline maltitol, will influence the chewiness of a cookie,” he explained.

Other polyol properties need to be taken into consideration. Maltitol, for example, substitutes well for sugar based on functionality and tolerance, but it is not considered a natural ingredient, Mr. Shinsato said. Erythritol, however, is accepted as natural and is highly tolerated but will readily crystallize because of its low solubility.

Loss of sugar’s volume when employing stevia and similar high-intensity sweeteners may be made up through use of gums, including guar and xanthan, or with tapioca flour, related Thom King, president, Steviva Brands, Inc., Portland, OR.

Alternative sugars such as crystalline fructose provide formulators another way to reduce sugar successfully in bakery foods when used in combination with low-sugar bulking agents like soluble dietary fibers or maltodextrins, according to Ms. Riddell of Tate & Lyle. “Since the sweetness intensity of crystalline fructose is naturally greater than sucrose, the formulator can reduce the total sugars by as much as 15% while maintaining the sweetness of the product, depending on the application and other sweeteners in the system,” she added.

Keep the sweetness

When crystalline fructose is combined 50:50 with sucrose, the result is sweeter than either alone. “This synergy allows further reductions in total sugar,” Ms. Riddell explained.

Steviva Brands took advantage of the sweetness of crystalline fructose to blend it with stevia extract, yielding an alternative sweetener that participates in Maillard browning and caramelization. “When we add our proprietary stevia extract, the sweet intensity is more than double,” Mr. King said. Another component of the blend is inulin, a prebiotic.

Sensus America reported that its inulin products complement other sugar-sparing ingredients, particularly the high-intensity sweeteners, reducing potential off-tastes.

“The use of such combinations may help formulators achieve goals that are beyond the scope of any one ingredient,” said Carl Volz, president, Sensus America, Inc., Lawrenceville, NJ. Inulin’s humectant properties enable its direct replacement of invert sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.

Inulin has the added benefit of being a dietary fiber. When incorporated at 2.5 g per serving, inulin allows a “good source” claim for fiber. “That’s important for snack and nutrition bars,” Cargill’s Ms. Goulson said. “And you may be able to make claims about improving calcium absorption when using inulin.”

Although wheat protein isolate is not a sweetener, it can mask the bitterness of whole grains, a job usually done by sugar. This masking function lets bakers reduce the amount of sugar added to such formulations, according to Brook Carson, director of R&D, ADM Milling, Overland Park, KS. The result will increase the protein in whole grain products instead of adding to sugar content.

And because proteins form films naturally, they can replace sugar’s stickiness. “Sugar adds functionality and flavor to cereal coatings,” Ms. Carson said. “Wheat protein concentrate can replace that functionality, maintaining or improving bowl life and product integrity.”

A unique milk protein concentrate from Glanbia Nutritionals, Fitchburg, WI, substitutes for sugar’s binding properties, which contribute to the texture of granola bars and cereal clusters. Linda Wilson, Glanbia’s business development manager, bars, noted that the protein concentrate enhances chewiness. “Incorporation of it at 0.5 to 5.0% facilitates reduction in sugar by up to 50%,” she said.

Cut the GI

Formulators and consumers hope that taking sugar out of products will also cut their glycemic index (GI). Bulking ingredients and high-potency sweeteners have zero GI, but as Cargill’s Dr. Fry explained, “It’s difficult to change the GI of baked foods because so much of it is dictated by the major ingredients: flour, starch and remaining sugars.”

Mr. O’Neill of BENEO identified two ways to make low-GI baked foods. One modifies the food’s glucose supply by choosing low-GI ingredients such as isomaltulose. The other reduces glucose by replacing fully available carbohydrates with polyols or prebiotic fibers.

Resistant starch, a good choice for bulking reduced-sugar baked foods, carries only 0.7 Cal per g. “It elicits a low GI response and contributes minimal calories,” Penford’s Dr. Abbas observed. Because the company’s potato-based resistant starches contribute no flavor, they work well with non-nutritive sweeteners.

“How can I make baked foods safe for people with diabetes?” is a frequent question asked of Mr. King by Steviva Brands’ customers. “Yes, our stevia-based ingredients reduce the sugar, but the flour in the formula is still a high-GI ingredient.”

Decide the objectives

When taking on a sugar-sparing project, the best thing to do is define specific objectives ahead of time. “Ask questions to be clear about the message the product is to deliver to the consumer,” Ingredion’s Mr. Shinsato advised. “Is the goal to meet a specific claim of sugar reduction, or is there a target amount of sugar per serving? Must the replacement bulking agents and sweeteners need be ‘natural’? What is at risk in terms of cost and brand image?”

In the end, the consumer determines the success or failure of a reduced-sugar product. Bakers ignore this at their peril. Sensus’ Mr. Volz observed, “Formulators need to be sure that new products maintain the organoleptic properties that consumers prefer, particularly texture.”

Sugar-sparing formulation projects require a holistic approach, according to Ms. Goulson. “You must understand your whole food system,” she said. “How do the ingredients work together? It can be done, and we recommend that formulators work with their suppliers to achieve these results.”