Sugar has been used for centuries to make foods and beverages more satisfying. Sugar doesn’t just add sweet taste—it’s also used to give some of consumers’ favorite foods and beverages the structure, texture, and overall mouthfeel that they love while also acting as a powerful flavor potentiator. Whether primarily used for taste or for functionality, sugar plays a key role in making foods and beverages taste great. Sweetness is one of our basic tastes and is closely aligned with pleasure and indulgence. Sugar is what keeps consumers coming back for more.
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Of all the sweeteners available, sugar is considered the gold standard because it delivers a clean sweet taste without any undesirable aftertaste. Beyond its sweetening properties, sugar provides structure and texture to many traditional foods, such as bakery products, syrups and jams, ice creams, and beverages. Sugar helps to create crispness and texture in cookies and enhance the creaminess of ice cream. Because of its importance in delivering taste and functionality, the food and beverage industry continues to look for solutions that can reduce sugar content without sacrificing function. Additionally, with growing consumer demand for better nutrition and cleaner labels, the task of sugar reduction becomes even more paramount.
Call for Reduced Sugars
Nutrition and what consumers consider “healthy foods” has been a moving target. In the 1980s, the “low fat” and “fat-free” trend peaked with consumers. While fat became the enemy, formulators needed to replace the fat with other ingredients, and sugar became the winning ingredient. Over the past 30 years, Americans have steadily consumed more added sugars in their diets, which has contributed to the obesity epidemic. According to USDA estimates, Americans consume on average 94 grams of sugar per day. The American Heart Association recommends consuming 25 grams and 36 grams of sugar for women and men respectively. Additionally, the U.S. government and World Health Organization recommend that sugar should account for 10 percent or less of daily energy intake.
With growing attention on sugar from the government, health organizations, and the media, consumers are also turning their attention away from fat reduction and to sugar reduction. New fad diets focus on removing added sugars; consumer awareness of sugar is at an all-time high. In 2016, Google Trends announced “low sugar” had surpassed “low fat” in consumer search trends. As consumers choose to reduce their sugar consumption, they are looking for brands and products that will fill this nutritional need. Adding to the challenge, more consumers are asking manufacturers to reduce sugar while maintaining taste and keeping the label clean. Today’s consumers now demand simpler, more transparent, and less processed ingredients. They are checking labels, self-diagnosing, eliminating certain ingredients, and going back to the basics.
And manufacturers and government organizations are listening. Mintel GNPD shows a 30 percent increase in reduced sugar claims on new products in 2016 over 2015. It’s not just sugar content consumers are scrutinizing. Many consumers are reading labels and are aware of high intensity sweeteners such as sucralose, natural sweeteners such as honey, and artificial sweeteners and making their own personal decision on what is best for them. Many of the high intensity sweeteners previously used to reduce sugar are now on consumer “no-no” lists and have been flagged by consumer advocates and bloggers. As consumer awareness of sugar content, health impacts, and non-sugar sweeteners grows, manufacturers are pressured to reformulate products and also provide more transparency.
Recently, the U.S. FDA finalized new labeling requirements and nutrition facts panels that will present consumers with a clearer picture of how much added sugar is in the products they buy. This will help consumers make the distinction between naturally occurring sugars like lactose in milk from added sugars and sweeteners. The proposed changes will make it easier for consumers to be informed on the amount of added sugar they are consuming while making it more difficult for many manufacturers to hide behind the current label that allows them to lump together added and naturally occurring sugars.
Factors for Industry
Unfortunately for the food and beverage industry, reducing added sugar in food and beverage formulas is not as simple as removing or reducing sugar. For most products, sugar is delivering far more than sweetness alone. Sugar is balancing the overall flavor, adding texture, and even delivering preservation in certain foods. While most high-intensity sweeteners and taste modulators can bring back perceived sweetness, they cannot deliver the lost functionality, taste, and mouthfeel of sugar. Many also bring with them undesirable off-notes and aftertastes. For example, stevia-based sweeteners are considered a good replacement for the sweetness lost when sugar is reduced. However, many times stevia-based products leave consumers with a bitter or metallic off-note. They also cannot deliver the lost mouthfeel or richness that sugar can. No single ingredient can replace sugar in all products and replicate its many functions at the same time. Consequently, reducing sugar often requires the use of several additional ingredients and additives to offset the loss of function.