There’s nothing like the real thing. That may never be more true than when using sugar in sweet goods. There’s just nothing that tastes and acts identically like sugar in a formula. But in today’s market where consumers are more conscious than ever about their sugar intake, natural sugar is ceding ground to a variety of replacements. When deciding between natural and artificial, formulators need to first decide which consumers they are targeting.

Ingredion, Inc. recently published a consumer study that looked at consumer attention to the grams of added sugars on nutrition labels and the impact on purchasing decisions. The study found that 80% of respondents noticed the grams of added sugars on the nutrition label. Three-quarters of them reported a negative impression of the products based on that information with 60% saying it would negatively impact their purchase decision.

“When introducing natural or artificial sweeteners to baked goods, bakers need to understand the core of the product they are formulating and the needs of the audience,” said Mark Floerke, project lead, bakery and culinary applications, ADM. “For instance, not all grocery stores or retailers allow products with artificial sweeteners, so bakers need to be aware of these criteria when formulating.”

He explained that retailer requirements, whether from Whole Foods or Aldi, vary drastically, so it’s important to evaluate each product to decide whether artificial or natural sweeteners, or both, are ideal for the formulation. Bakers need to decide if taste or functionality is most important. As a guide, Mr. Floerke said formulators should ask themselves several questions: What functionality does the ingredient serve? How can that ingredient be replaced without compromising the end product? What are consumers looking for, and how can formulators deliver it while still hitting the taste, texture and price point consumers expect?

“These are all good thought starters,” Mr. Floerke said. “In the end, consumers will still expect the same product they’ve grown accustomed to, even if they are leaning toward trends that change the composition of the product.”

The real deal

Table sugar, chemically known as sucrose, includes a variety of carbohydrates. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines sugars as monosaccharides and disaccharides, the former being the smallest molecular carbohydrate unit and the latter being two of those units bonded together. Each has its own level of sweetness and is always compared with sucrose, which is recognized as having a sweetness level of 1.0. This is the baseline.

In addition to adding sweetness to baked foods, sucrose provides a multitude of functional benefits. To begin with, sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture, which impacts the humectancy of bakery products. Sugar keeps baked foods moist by bonding with water molecules. By doing this, it prevents the proteins and starches in the system from binding with the water and creating a tough texture.

Cookies provide one example of sugar’s benefits. Sucrose keeps them soft and chewy while also giving them a nice brown color through the Maillard reaction, which artificial sweeteners cannot replicate. Another example is meringues. Sugar slows down foaming and stabilizes the product by protecting the egg whites from being overbeaten. Then, once the foam is formed, sugar prevents the meringues from collapsing by supporting the air bubbles.

With the new added-sugar labeling requirements, Cargill is seeing more companies interested in reducing sugar without bringing attention to it to avoid negative perceptions of lower sugar equating to less taste.

“In the past, most sugar reductions were to enable a front-of-pack claim,” said Tim Christensen, senior food technologist, R.&D. bakery applications, Cargill. “Still, whatever the labeling goal, when we start reducing sugar in baked goods, it has wide ranging implications on formulation. We’re not just replacing sugar’s sweet taste. We also need to replace its bulk and functionality.”

Potent substitutes

Formulators must walk a fine line when reducing sugars and introducing artificial sweeteners, and it takes some smarts to perform the balancing act. Bakers may be concerned about adding chemical-sounding names, which detract from clean label appeal.

Most artificial sweeteners are high intensity or high potency, meaning formulators need very little to achieve high levels of sweetness. Some range from 150 to 700 times the sweetness of sugar. There are eight high-intensity sweeteners available. Six of them — acesulfame potassium, advantame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin and sucralose — are regulated by the F.D.A. as food additives.

Currently the F.D.A. does not have a definition for “low sugar,” but “reduced sugar” is defined as a minimum of 25% reduction. Claire Burt, principal technologist, Ingredion, said this provides a clear goal to meet or exceed that claim.

“To reduce sugar overall, formulators might find themselves considering whether the sugar in a formulation is all entirely necessary,” Ms. Burt said. “Incremental reductions in sugar are possible in many cases, and replacement — whether with a natural or artificial ingredient — can help keep sweetness in an acceptable range without having to drastically rework the formula.”

However, reducing sugars might also deter certain consumers from picking up a product. Corbion recently conducted a labeling study in which consumers who have some intent to read labels indicated they are open to sugar reduction up to 20% but expressed concern with taste in reductions of this magnitude. In the study, 53% of bread consumers expressed a negative opinion about the use of sugar substitutes while 42% had a negative opinion about their use in sweet baked foods.

“In our recent primary research, we concluded that sweet baked goods consumers are slightly more accepting of sugar substitutes than those of the bread categories, although overall acceptance is still very low,” said CJ McClellan, global marketing manager, bakery, Corbion.

Despite some consumer groups’ aversion to reduced-sugar claims, these products aren’t going away. According to Innova Market insights, 14% of new bakery product launches for baked goods in the United States and Canada since 2010 have made a “No/Low/Reduced Sugar” claim reference. For formulators looking to match low-sugar claims with consumers seeking those types of products, ingredient suppliers have developed solutions that will enable formulators to reduce sugar without compromising taste.

Cesar Contreras, business development manager for specialty division, ASR Group, said the application of high-potency, plant-based sweeteners varies, depending on product attributes like pH, temperature and bulking requirements.

For example, a high-potency sweetener that is 300-times sweeter than sugar only needs to be used in tiny amounts, and that generates a bulking problem.

“This bulking gap becomes a big challenge for the formulator,” Mr. Contreras said. “You could use bulking agents like maltodextrin, but that has the same calories as sugar and therefore will not work for calorie reduction.”

Mr. Contreras cautioned formulators that some bulking replacements add back the same number of calories they might have been trying to remove. Conversely, other bulking agents that are low in calories are more expensive than ingredients they are replacing.

ASR Group offers a Sweetener Optimization Platform and works directly with customers to find the right balance for the intended application. The company also is developing a line of plant-based, low-calorie sweeteners that are functional, cost efficient and produced from sustainable sources. Mr. Contreras emphasized that it’s almost impossible to pull out sugar and replace it one-for-one with another ingredient and obtain the same results. To get around that problem, ASR Group recommends its customers use a “stacking technology” with the ingredient portfolio they are offered.

“Stacking is a sugar optimization strategy for building up to the required sweetness intensity and profile while staying below the off-flavor threshold of some high-potency sweeteners,” Mr. Contreras said. “We work with customers by guiding them in the direction of what they want, considering cost, labeling requirements and consumer expectations.”

Mr. Floerke said soluble corn fiber that is the basis for ADM’s Fibersol can improve bulking without adding sweetness.

“Fibersol can replace many of the functional properties of sugar, which in turn reduces the total amount of sugars added and reduces calories,” he said. “As consumers become increasingly health conscious, using creative solutions that hit on multiple better-for-you trends will become key for developers in order to meet this demand; other ingredients may need to be added to achieve the right outcome.”

Ample applications

Although reduced sugar is important to consumers, taste prevails as their top priority. According to Kerry’s “Sensibly Sweet” consumer research published June 2018, 55% of consumers want reduced sugar products to taste the same while 27% of them prefer products that taste less sweet. Managing these expectations is critical for food manufacturers looking to remain relevant with consumers that maintain healthier diets.

ADM takes a systems-based approach and balances sweetness profiles to get the perfect mix of upfront and lingering sweetness.

“It’s important to note that every product requires a different balance of sweetness,” Mr. Floerke said.

For example, a cookie is going to require a different formulation of sweeteners than a high-fat product such as cheesecake. To address these differences, ADM offers a broad portfolio of sweeteners, as well as sweetness modifiers and enhancers, and provides formulation experts who can help solve common challenges food developers encounter when replacing or lowering added sugar.

This article is an excerpt from the May 2019 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on sweeteners, click here.