So, why are you still using sugar in your upscale baked foods and snacks? For many products, it’s the right choice. However, to give a healthy halo to an indulgent item, the best sweetener may be an alternative to conventional cane, corn and beet sugars. It may be made from barley, oats, rice, sorghum, wheat, tapioca, chicory or even the hearts of agave.

Welcome to the world of variety syrups.

Just about any cereal grain or tuber that contains a lot of starch can be made into a syrup if properly processed. When barley is malted, for example, the enzymes naturally present will convert some of its starches into sugars. When taken further, that process yields sweet viscous syrups. It’s the same approach used with cereal grains, tubers and other starchy plant materials. Depending on their source, such syrups differ in degree of sweetness and may also carry over a bit of color and/or flavor, especially those made from malted cereal grains.

Viewed in terms of old and new, there’s honey, the sweet syrup favored by bakers since antiquity, and malt, a sweetener discovered by the brewers in ancient days. There’s also inulin, a relatively new although far less sweet ingredient with the prebiotic characteristics that make it a dietary fiber of interest to the health-and-wellness ­market — modern indeed.

While a switch in sweetening syrups may be motivated by today’s high-fructose corn syrup controversy, “corn syrup alternatives have been used in hundreds of applications for over two decades,” said Jim Mitchell, director of R&D, Ciranda, Inc., Hudson, WI. “Alternative syrups are being explored in most baking and snack applications as a replacement for more commonly used glucose syrups.”

Supply chain considerations have improved as well. “Options such as tapioca syrup have become reliable alternative sweeteners,” said Alyssa Turner, product specialist, Ingredion Inc., Westchester, IL. “These sweeteners allow many similar functional benefits as the more traditional nutritive sweeteners.”

A formulator wanting to use variety syrups to take a product “out of the commonplace into the rare” will need to consider cost factors, too. Conventional sugars are the least expensive sweeteners, but variety syrups can provide the added value to justify a premium price for a healthy but indulgent bakery treat.

Market-moving power

Variety syrups wield considerable clout in helping food marketers swing consumer preferences their way. “Marketing is probably the biggest reason that these alternative syrups have gained popularity,” said Jason Greenfield, product manager, Batory Foods, Des Plaines, IL. This ingredient category encompasses choices that allow label claims of organic, all-natural, gluten-free, non-GMO and so forth. “These syrups are gaining popularity in applications where being able to make these claims are important to the producer,” he observed.

These syrups convey a natural image, or as explained by Jim Morano, PhD, principal scientist, Suzanne’s Specialties, New Brunswick, NJ: “The real value of natural sweeteners are that they set the product apart as more healthy. They give the product the natural image. They put an asterisk on the product.”

Today, many health-and-wellness formulators use specialty syrups to replace corn syrup and make their formulations more label friendly. Agave, for example, “stands the test of label readers while other sweeteners come under intense scrutiny,” Ms. Turner said. “This on-trend angle makes agave the perfect choice for marketers and product developers searching for a naturally derived, easy-to-use sweetness solution.”

Of course, these variety syrups are higher in cost than conventional sugars and syrups, so their applications tend to be in high-end, high-value finished products. “Price is usually more than the corn sweeteners,” said J.W. Hickenbottom, vice-president, sales and marketing, Malt Products Corp., Saddle Brook, NJ.

They fit the direction of the market. “The baking trend is back-to-nature, which means a return to ‘natural’ with no artificial flavors, colors or processing,” explained Judie Giebel, technical services representative, Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., Chilton, WI. “This is where an alternate sweetener like tapioca syrup has a perfect fit.” Tapioca syrup is made from a natural starch base and naturally processed to convert the starch into sugars.

Some lend themselves to consumer avoidance of gluten and genetically modified (GMO) foods. Ms. Giebel noted tapioca and white sorghum syrups as answers for those concerns. “Alternative syrups are natural and easy to formulate with, making them an increasingly popular choice for natural food manufacturers,” she said.

These syrups also simplify package labels because they eliminate sugar and corn syrup from ingredient listings, according to Ms. Giebel.

Another market mover is demand from consumers seeking organic foods. Many variety syrups are offered in certified-organic forms, as defined by the National Organic Program run by the US Department of Agriculture. It’s worth noting that all certified-organic ingredients are also non-GMO.

The so-called ancient grains and heritage foods, such as cassava root, have not been altered by biotechnology. “Specifically with tapioca syrup, the non-GMO status is appealing to the consumer,” Mr. Mitchell said.

Mr. Hickenbottom added, “Malt from barley is not gluten-free but is GMO-free.”

The health angle

Food and Drug Administration regulations closely control health claims printed on food package labels, but a lot of what consumers “know” about the benefits of certain foods comes through wellness tips touted in the media. Consumers don’t always want to seek the science behind such claims, but there’s good scientific evidence about benefits conferred by dietary fiber and carbohydrates with low glycemic index ratings. A number of alternative syrups qualify as both.

Representing a company that sells variety syrups from numerous producers, Mr. Greenfield observed, “Several manufacturers state that a person [consuming foods made with these syrups] will not experience the same blood sugar spikes as one would experience with more conventional sweeteners.” He cited the slow-paced, steady delivery of component sugars from complex carbohydrates compared with the sharp, fast release of these sugars from conventional sweeteners.

Health concerns drive consumers worldwide. “There’s no question that consumers are a key driver in demanding that manufacturers provide healthier choices in food and beverage options,” said Joe O’Neill, president and general manager, BENEO, Inc., Morris Plains, NJ. “Worldwide, there’s intensity for products that help people better manage their weight, lower blood glucose levels and provide less sugar, but consumers don’t want to sacrifice taste.”

Those seeking to avoid allergens will welcome several natural sweeteners. Ms. Turner identified both tapioca and agave as allergen friendly.

Beyond the bar

Rice and agave syrups earned a prominent role in granola, sports and nutrition bars right from the start of the category, while malt syrups have long been used in bread and roll products. Development of syrups derived from other grains and tubers opened the door to using them in additional baking and snack products.

“Alternative syrups used to be reserved for beverages, but now they’re being used in cereals, cakes, bars, breads and confectionary,” Ms. Giebel said. “Applications are almost limitless. Anywhere corn syrup is used, an alternate sweetener can be used.”

Bars, muffins, cookies, cakes and even ready-to-eat cereals now benefit from the sweetening power of alternative syrups. “Based on the different characteristics of each syrup, there can be flavor and color enhancements, different levels of sweetness, some binding capabilities and so on,” Mr. Greenfield said.

Take the example of malt. “Different malts — liquid, dry, diastatic or nondiastatic — contribute flavor, color and sweetness to bagels, pretzels, crackers, breads, rolls and other products,” Mr. Hickenbottom said. Diastatic malts retain their natural amylase enzymes and dough-conditioning activity, but those enzymes are deactivated to create nondiastatic malt, which functions primarily as a flavor and color additive. “When malt is used in combination with the other sweeteners, more flavor is gained in the baked goods including more crust color,” he added.

These uses demonstrate an important truth, according to Dr. Morano. “Applications for natural syrups are not so much new as they are growing among existing categories,” he said. “People are learning how to take an established formula using refined sugar and convert it to natural sweeteners by picking an appropriate blend of such sweeteners.

“The best advice is to step back and look at the composition of the refined sugar now used,” he continued. “You can achieve the same sugar profile with a combination of natural sweeteners.”

In items normally calling for corn sweeteners, “rice and/or tapioca syrups can be used interchangeably on a pound-for-pound basis, provided the dextrose equivalent (DE) is equal. No corn on the label seems to be the main reason for their inclusion,” Mr. Hickenbottom observed.

Dr. Morano confirmed this substitution. “If you match the DE and the sugar profile, you will match the performance,” he said and recommended that the sugar profile be achieved through a combining various natural syrups.

Sweeteners derived from cereal grain starches mirror the styles produced from corn starch because all starch molecules consist of chained dextrose units. What makes one syrup natural and another not is the method of production. “If you start with brown rice, you have access to all its natural components — starch, bran and protein,” Dr. Morano explained. “If you start with corn, you refine it first, extracting the starch and removing the bran and oils. You hydrolyze both types of starch with enzymes to create the syrups. At the same DE, the carbohydrate profile will be the same, but the brown rice syrup will be considered natural.”

Agave is different. Its base component is a fructose polymer, inulin, and the syrup is 85% fructose on a dry solids basis. “The same is true of chicory and Jerusalem artichoke,” Dr. Morano said. “But most people want the inulin from chicory because it is a soluble dietary fiber, and refining it to chicory syrup would be taking a step backward and down the value scale.”

The high fructose content of agave means that it is sweeter than other syrups, and “it doesn’t reduce bulk like a non-nutritive, high-potency sweetener,” Ms. Turner observed. “Agave can be used similarly or in tandem with corn-derived syrups and, in formulation, can provide superior ease of use compared with its high-potency counterparts in the natural space.”

Improving the product

As attractive as variety products are to consumers, they perform beneficially for bakers and snack manufacturers, too. They sweeten, flavor and color products, enhancing the aroma of the finished item and extending its freshness. “Alternate syrups often delay staling, adding a day or two to shelf life,” Ms. Giebel said. “Texture differences from the standard liquid sugar or granulated sugar may be advantageous for some applications, for example, softer and moister cakes.”

They offer a range of sweetness levels, from low to moderate and up a bit above that of sucrose. “These syrups also have varying levels of sweetness, so they can be adapted to different applications,” Mr. Greenfield said. “Depending on the product, they can range from being neutral in flavor to adding flavor.”

Honey and agave occupy the sweet end of the spectrum, according to Mr. Hickenbottom. “Both are much sweeter than the corn, rice and tapioca, and in baked goods, agave and honey provide the extra sweetness and even flavor,” he said.

The sugar content of variety syrups makes them fermentable and hygroscopic. Mr. Hickenbottom described rice and tapioca syrups as clear to tan in color. They offer equal fermentability for yeast-raised foods, and they have good binding properties. “Energy bars seem to be switching from corn [syrups] to rice and tapioca. Both syrups contribute viscosity for binding as well as sweetness and humectancy,” he said.

Let’s face it, syrups are sticky and thick, some more than others. “Tapioca syrup tends to be slightly less viscous than corn syrup at the same DE level, which may improve ease of handling,” Mr. Mitchell said.

“There are also advantages in some of the lower-conversion syrups when compared with corn-based on the residual properties of the starch,” he added. “For example, a low-DE tapioca or rice syrup tends to form a tack-free film better than corn syrup.” They can be applied by brush to the crust of baked foods to create a high-gloss, tack-free glaze.

What makes variety syrups so interesting? While good at sweetening baked foods and snacks, they improve shelf life as well as product aroma and appearance. Capable of making a marketable difference, they bring added value to products, making them well worth their extra cost.              

— additional reporting by Charlotte Atchley