Yes, it’s fun to formulate with the new and novel, but sometimes, it’s the old and traditional that does the best job. Besides, that old-fashioned approach is right “on trend” today, the trend favoring natural ingredients. Two of mankind’s oldest sweeteners — honey and malt — qualify as natural, and what’s more, consumers see them that way as well.

“Today’s consumer is more aware than ever before about the ingredients in the foods they eat,” said Catherine Barry, director of marketing, National Honey Board, Firestone, CO. “Honey plays an important role in sweetening bakery foods, giving bakers the opportunity to sweeten their products with an ingredient with exceptional familiarity and trust with consumers. This is very important to a growing segment of consumers who intensely read labels and crave more natural and clean products.”

The choice of honey for foods formulated to be all-natural takes full advantage of the fact that it is familiar to consumers and does not carry negative perceptions. And it helps maintain a clean label.

Malt may be slightly less familiar to consumers, but bakers are well aware of its value in creating foods perceived as healthy. “Manufacturers targeting the health-and-wellness platform are using malt to help achieve a clean label in a number of ways,” observed Judie Giebel, technical services representative and AIB Certified Baker, Briess Malt & Ingredients, Chilton, WI. “Malt is all-natural, non-GMO, healthy and nutritious. In ­addition to the label claims it delivers, it can help remove high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from a label.”

Long a staple of specialty health-foods stores, honey in a variety of forms as well as malt offered as extracts and syrups now get greater shelf space, even separate displays, in traditional grocery chains. Such improved visibility at retail is “a response to heightened consumer interest in this area,” according to Jon Bodner, technical director, Sweetener Supply Corp., Brookfield, IL. Food product developers have increased their efforts to use such alternative nutritive sweeteners during the past few years, and he predicted this approach will likely continue into the future.

As bakery formulators re-evaluate their sweetener options, the natural choices have become very attractive, according to Jim Morano, PhD, principal scientist, Suzanne’s Specialties, New Brunswick, NJ. “The general trend is to move from refined to natural,” he said. “And this is driven by consumers who are attracted to natural, nutritional ingredients.”

And there’s another reason the market favors sweeteners with an uncomplicated reputation. “The simple cooking trend will accelerate,” Ms. Giebel noted. “Foodies want old-fashioned baked goods but don’t always have the time to do it. Bringing back grandma’s recipes with a new flair, I believe, will be the next trend.”

In its genes

Like grandma, bakers have used honey and malt — both malted barley flour and malted barley extract — for a long time. For centuries, Ms. Giebel observed. “These days, as consumers seek new food experiences, bakers are discovering malt’s other contributions to both yeast-raised and chemically leavened baked goods. Malt is beneficial to both types because it comes in two forms, diastatic and nondiastatic,” she said.

Diastatic malt carries the amylase and protease enzymes native to its source barley, but these are inactivated in nondiastatic styles. In artisan breads, for example, diastatic malted barley flour enhances yeast activity and acts as a browning agent. “In multigrain breads, it will mask some of the grainy flavor notes, brown the crust, soften the dough and aid fermentation,” Ms. Giebel added.

The nondiastatic version, usually offered as a liquid extract, functions primarily as a sweetener and flavoring agent. “It gives muffins a softer, moister texture,” Ms. Giebel said. But it’s not just chemically leavened products that benefit. Nondiastatic malt improves the flavor, color and chewy exterior of bagels and helps pizza crusts brown properly.

Honey, too, is more than just a sweetener. “Since honey is the most ancient of sweeteners and a natural preservative, it enhances the flavor of their products as well as extends its shelf life,” explained Alan Turanski, vice-president of GloryBee Foods, Inc., Eugene, OR.

It carries organic acids, enzymes and other helpful compounds. Its low water activity (liquid honey ­averages an aW of 0.55), limits fungal and bacterial growth. Its hygroscopic nature helps baked foods retain moisture, delay staling and improve shelf life. With total phenolics at nearly 800 mg per kg, honey contains more dietary antioxidants than all other sweeteners.

The high acidity of honey, which averages 3.91 in pH, also helps ­inhibit mold growth in bakery foods and extend shelf life.

A whole grain natural

To stay true to the spirit of whole grains, bakery formulators should consider using malt and honey as the source of fermentable sugars and sweetness in such varieties. “We’re seeing honey’s popularity grow, especially in all-natural and whole grain products,” Ms. Barry said. “In whole wheat breads and rolls, honey creates a sweet flavor profile while masking the bitter flavor notes whole grains can carry.”

Honey and malt have big roles to play in boosting the appeal of whole grain baked foods, according to J.W. Hickenbottom, vice-president, sales and marketing, Malt Products Corp., Saddle Brook, NJ. “These natural sweeteners mellow the bitter note of the whole grains in addition to providing fermentable carbohydrates such as fructose, glucose, sucrose and maltose,” he said. Even at relatively low levels of 1 to 3% (bakers percent), honey and malt provide enhanced flavor, color and sweetness in addition to increased shelf life and stability.

Ms. Barry explained honey’s functionality in more detail. “Products that contain honey dry out more slowly and have a lesser tendency to crack. This is due to honey’s hygroscopicity,” she said. “Additionally, it acts naturally to coat, bind and thicken products, improving body and mouthfeel.”

And even at the relatively low percentage of 6% (flour weight basis), honey improves the aroma of sweet cakes, biscuits, breads and similar products. And it’s not just for baked foods but snacks, too. “Some of our customers use honey for their gourmet popcorn or roasted nut products,” Mr. Turanski explained.

“Why look at honey?” Dr. Morano asked. “Its cousins on the refined side are full invert syrup and HFCS 55. These sweeteners are all roughly half-and-half, fructose to glucose. You can think of honey as a natural form of full invert processed by bees. But you will need to consider the flavor honey adds when substituting it in bakery formulations for full invert and HFCS. And if you’re making all-natural baked foods, malt extract provides sweetening, flavor and color.”

Work-out tips

Formulators switching to honey or malt need to keep an eye on a few, but important, technical aspects.

First, there are similarities. “Comparing honey to malt, both are marketed at about 80% solids,” Mr. Hickenbottom said. “Both contribute minerals and low-molecular-weight nitrogenous compounds especially useful as yeast nutrients; both have similar calories (300 Cal per 100 g) and viscosities, and except for honey being sweeter, both are very similar in baked goods.”

Take the matter of sweetness. “As a rule of thumb, liquid honey is considered to have the same sweetness as dry granulated sugar,” Mr. Bodner noted. “Malt, on the other hand, usually is not as sweet as sugar.”

The key is in the differences. “Honey can be used as a complete or partial replacement for almost any sweetener,” Ms. Barry said. “However, differences in formulas and baking environment make substitution guidelines slightly different, depending on the formula.”

Because of honey’s high fructose content, it is sweeter than sugar, ­allowing bakers to use less of it to achieve the same sweetening power of sucrose. “Begin by substituting honey for up to half of the sugar called for in the formula,” Ms. Barry advised.

Because honey contains water, formulators must reduce liquid components by 25% and add 1% baking soda, with both adjustments made for each part of honey used. Oven temperature is also critical: It must be lowered by 25 F° to prevent excessive browning.

“If you have a favorite formula you want to take into the health foods or organic market, you can convert it from refined sweeteners to honey,” Dr. Morano said. Honey can replace full invert syrup, sucrose and HFCS 55 on a 1:1 solids basis.

Bakers even earn a bit of an advantage with the substitution because full invert is 76 to 77% solids and honey is 82% solids. “The higher solids content of honey means that slightly less is used by weight, and you make up the difference in water,” he explained. “Say you’re replacing 100 lb of full invert at 76% solids with honey at 82% solids. You do the calculation, and it comes out to 92.6 lb of honey and 7.4 lb of water.”

The math of malt

The calculations for malt differ because it is not as sweet as sucrose. Malted barley extract in syrup form replaces sugar at three parts to four. Using that ratio, Ms. Giebel said 12 oz of malt extract would replace 16 oz of sugar, as long as formula liquids were also reduced by one-quarter.

This raises the aspect of water content. Both honey and malt extracts are liquids. “For example, when substituting honey for granulated sugar, it is common to reduce other added liquids to maintain the moisture balance of the finished products,” Mr. Bodner explained. “In some cases, the moisture level of honey can become a limiting factor in the level of sweetener substitution.” Malt extracts, on the other hand, are generally available in both dry and liquid forms.

“Malt extract is unique because barley is unique,” Dr. Morano said. Barley naturally selected itself for brewing because, during germination, it liberates more enzymes than any other type of cereal grain. “It is a tremendous enzyme source,” he added.

When 100% malted barley is dried, milled and steeped in water, its enzymes convert the starches present in barley into sugar. This is a natural process much the same as for the preparation of corn syrup, except the enzymes used are native to barley, not added. Also, the whole malted barley grain is used instead of just the starch as is the case with corn syrup.

Malt extract is the functional equivalent of a high-maltose, 52 DE corn syrup, Dr. Morano explained, and it readily replaces 42 DE and 62 DE corn syrups. It also contains about 5% soluble malt protein, which is capable of developing flavor and color through the Maillard browning reaction.

The issue of color requires careful thought. “Both honey and malt are darker materials than either granulated sugar or corn syrup, and their inclusion can result in a darker finished product,” Mr. Bodner cautioned. Considerable variation exists in color and flavor, depending on type, source and process. “Lighter colors typically have a milder flavor, and darker colors tend to be stronger flavored,” he explained.

And there can be a difference in color effects according to the leavening used. In yeast-raised products, for example, the reducing sugars remaining after fermentation will be lower than in chemically leavened goods, Mr. Bodner pointed out. “In addition, the yeast cells secrete invertase, which splits the disaccharide sucrose into the reducing sugar monomers, glucose and fructose. For other non-yeast-raised products, the impact on browning may be more dramatic,” he noted.

Measuring value-added

While natural sweeteners enjoy high-profile recognition from consumers, they usually are not the low-cost choice. “Almost as a rule, the natural sweeteners are more expensive,” Dr. Morano said. “You can get the same sweetener functionality more cheaply with refined sweeteners, but natural sweeteners provide bakers the option to ask premium prices for their goods.

“If a company wants consumers to look at its products as natural,” he emphasized, “it has to put in things the consumer considers natural and leave out the things consumers consider artificial.”

Mr. Hickenbottom made the same point. “Honey availability and price currently may deter bakers from using more of it, even though its attributes are considerable,” he said. “Consumers have good recognition and acceptance of products using honey. Malt is not as recognizable by the consumer, but many bakers of whole grain items know that malt produces products with added eye appeal and salability. Honey and malt will continue to be the ‘bakers choice’ of sweeteners in many items for years to come.

“In today’s market, sucrose and corn sweeteners are priced less than either honey or malt,” he continued. “This variance is counteracted by being able to use less honey and malt to achieve the desired flavor and color yet benefit from enhanced finished products. This difference can be as much as 15% less in both cases.”

The virtues of these natural sweeteners are properly viewed as value-added advantages. “The National Honey Board expects the popularity of honey to increase as the sweetener industry continues to be scrutinized by the media and medical community,” Ms. Barry said. “Since honey is produced in Mother Nature by bees, manufacturers that sweeten their products with honey don’t have to worry about the perception consumers will have when reading an ingredient listing.”

And that’s a good thing.