While sugar is one of the simplest pantry ingredients — it’s obtained from sugarcane or sugar beets through just a few steps (extraction, evaporation and drying) — it happens to be one of the most controversial. The medical community and wellness advocates have urged the public to stay away from it, but some of the most popular baked goods contain concentrated amounts, making them delicious and craveable. It’s no wonder the sweetener community remains active in identifying systems to assist with reducing sugar in several baked foods, including cookies, cakes, bars and muffins.

“Over the last decade there have been calls to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet as a growing number of chronic conditions can be linked to excessive consumption,” said Kishan Vasani, co-founder and chief operating officer of Spoonshot, a food and beverage innovation company that leverages artificial intelligence and food science. “This has resulted in the evolution of an entire industry searching for new solutions to replace or reduce sugar.”

ADM Outside Voice research showed that eight out of 10 consumers are actively trying to reduce sugar in their diets. Of those eight consumers, 79% find sugar reduction is important in bars and snacks. Seventy percent find it important in baked goods.

“Shoppers may further scrutinize product labels on store-bought baked goods as they are also likely baking these same offerings at home,” said Sarah Diedrich, marketing director-sweetening solutions and fibers, ADM. “In fact, 53% of consumers are reviewing the type of sweetener used for baked goods. If an ingredient can’t be found in the home kitchen or pantry, it can be a sign of processing or compromise to consumers. This raises the bar for included sweeteners, which need to be either familiar or justified for use in certain products to be fully accepted.”

When reducing or replacing sugar, bakers face a number of challenges, as sugar not only provides sweet taste and functions as a flavor carrier, it also contributes to mouthfeel, texture and appearance — think Maillard browning. In yeast-leavened baked goods, sugar may also help manage fermentation. And bakers appreciate sugar’s humectant properties to assist with extending product shelf life.

“There are so many functions beyond sugar being sweet,” said Eleonora Lahud, corporate chef, ASG Group. “That’s why sugar cannot be replaced with just one ingredient.”

Re-formulating for sugar reduction requires thinking beyond just taste but all the ways sugar contributes to the finished product.

 “We approach each sugar reduction formulation with the same three goals in mind: replace sweetness, rebalance flavor and rebuild functionality,” said Hanna Santoro, senior scientist-baking development and applications, ADM. “Each element is important to keeping the best sensory attributes in reduced-sugar baked goods.”

Another reason why bakers like sugar is that it is inexpensive and readily available. Removing some or all of it from a batter or dough impacts manufacturing costs. However, on the positive side, sugar reduction may be good for the environment, as sugarcane and sugar beets are thirsty crops.

“Sugar crops are increasingly becoming unviable in an era when environmental and climate issues are at the forefront of everyone’s minds,” said Mr. Vasani. “Sustainability has stopped being a nice-to-have buzzword and is increasingly becoming an important measurable metric for consumers. Not surprisingly more and more companies across the food and drink sectors are pledging to go carbon neutral or even carbon negative. That, along with consumer demand for healthier foods, is giving sugar alternatives a real leg up in promoting companies’ sustainability credentials by reducing their carbon footprints.”

This article is an excerpt from the July 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Sweeteners, click here.