The multitude of sweeteners available provide many pathways for formulators looking to enhance baked goods.

Expecting a baker to cut back on sugar is like thinking a cheesemaker can reduce milk usage. These ingredients are vital to the success of the finished product. Some form of sugar is necessary in most cookies and cakes or even a simple loaf of bread. Bakers are learning how to choose wisely to better appeal to today’s label-reading, wellness-seeking consumer.

When it comes to sugar consumption, the message is loud and clear. People need to reduce intake to improve health. The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) is doing its part by requiring the newly revised Nutrition Facts Label to flag added sugars. For some shoppers, this number determines if a product makes it into their cart.

Analyzing sugar content is serious business. A growing number of U.S. shoppers (32%) had a more negative opinion of sugars in 2017 as compared with the previous year, according to the International Food Information Council. Among consumers who regularly use nutrition information, 91% said they are trying to avoid or limit sugars.

Data from HealthFocus International shows that 40% of shoppers already have decreased their intake during the past two years, and more plan to do so going forward.

Bakers are noting sweetness from honey, maple syrup and other sweeteners on their products.

“With the new Nutrition Facts flagging added sugars, food manufacturers are finding they need to justify the use of sweeteners,” said Brooke Bright, senior data strategy manager, Label Insight.

She predicts that consumers will increasingly want to recognize their sources.

“Even if it is just a few grams, they will want to know if it’s from honey, agave or high-fructose corn syrup,” she said. “They want transparency. Make sure you are in control of your story.”

In the natural and organic channel, more companies offer unrefined sugars in baked foods, said Kara Nielsen, vice-president of trends and marketing, CCD Innovation. Some are promoting products fitting the paleo format dictating sweetness from honey, maple syrup, dates or the less processed coconut sugar, all of which add flavor, minerals and other nutrients like antioxidants to the mix.

For the most part, consumers understand that certain prepared foods use specific ingredients to taste good or, for that matter, to merely exist. Many baked goods, for example, require sugar just as much as they need flour. As a result, the type of sugar is becoming more important.

Playing the field
The term table sugar, chemically known as sucrose, encompasses a multitude of carbohydrates. The F.D.A. defines sugars as monosaccharides and disaccharides, with the former being the smallest molecular carbohydrate unit and the latter being two of those units bonded together. Each one has its own level of sweetness and is always compared to sucrose, which is recognized as 1.0.

In addition to adding that sweetness to baked foods, sugars provide several functions. For starters, they are hygroscopic, meaning they absorb moisture, which impacts the humectancy of bakery products. In cookies, for example, they help keep them soft and chewy.

Some sugars function as “reducing” sugars. Under high heat, the sugar interacts with proteins to form compounds that produce desirable “baked” or “burnt” brown flavor and color — the Maillard browning reaction. This requires the highly reactive end of the sugar’s molecular structure, which means it’s impossible with high-intensity sweeteners. Sugars also may be caramelized. Like the Maillard reaction, caramelization is known as non-enzymatic browning. However, it does not rely on proteins. Heat simply causes the sugars to break down in a process known as pyrolysis. The end result is a sweet brown flavor and color.

In yeast-raised products, sugars function as fuel for fermentation. For this reason, some form of sugar is often included in everyday bread and buns.

Lastly, granulated sugars contribute bulk solids to batters and doughs. Liquid sugars impact viscosity, sometimes functioning as binders. All these functionalities must be considered when selecting or modifying sweetening systems in baked foods.

“Bakers are looking to get more out of the ingredients they use,” said Jeff Casper, director of research and innovation, Malt Products Corp. “Natural sweeteners can bring color, flavor, nutrition and some other functional benefits to the party.”

Food technologists are actively seeking to replace refined sweeteners that have an image of being empty calories, Mr. Casper explained. High-fructose corn syrup and standard corn syrups are the primary targets for replacement. Bakers should look beyond dextrose equivalent (DE), which measures the amount of reducing sugars present, as the sole metric for a match. For example, viscosity can be different at the same DE, and this can impact texture or processing quality.