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Pure sugars in food products: Why they’re essential

27/10/2022 By Ibrahim Belo in Applications

The current obesity crisis has prompted governments all over the world to clamp down on sugar. But when manufacturers take out sugar in their food products, they must do a lot more than just tweak the taste. How do you replace sugar, and what happens when you do?

Sugar free: cutting the calories, at a cost

Sugar is so much more than a sweetener, as almost any food scientist will tell you. The food and beverage industry has long depended on sugar for a variety of functions, from flavour and mouthfeel to texture, colour development and shelf life.

There are consumer demographics that are shunning sugar and looking for sugar-free alternatives to their favourite foods. The problem is, consumers’ expectations haven’t changed: they want the same taste and eating experience, even though they think they don’t want the sugar.

It’s a narrow line to walk, and manufacturers are looking for ways to stay on top of these trends in a cost-effective way without compromising taste. The formulation challenges are difficult to implement. What are the most common alternative sugar solutions for the food products we know and love, and how do they measure up to the real thing?

Replacing sugar’s textural properties in baked goods: the ingredients

Sugars play a major role in defining the bulk (volume) and texture (mouthfeel) of cakes and biscuits, by increasing the starch gelatinisation temperature, trapping air bubbles and delivering a light texture. Sugar is a humectant – meaning that it binds water – which is important for preservation as well as texture.

Sugar free baked goods often look pale and uncooked because sugar caramelises during baking to give everything a golden-brown colour: brown sugars like demerara and muscovado are especially good at creating colour. Manufacturers can simulate the browning with artificial colouring, but to achieve the texture of our favourite biscuits, cookies and cakes, they need to use ‘emulsifiers’: additives that prevent the separation of substances that typically don’t mix, like oil and water.

stack of homemade golden syrup cupcakes on white plate.

Only sugar can naturally bestow that beautiful golden brown hue to baked goods

In 2015, researchers published a study in Nature supporting their theory that emulsifiers used in food processing could be promoting inflammatory diseases. They tested their theory on mice using two commonly used emulsifiers, carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80. However, other scientists say that the concentrations of emulsifiers consumed by the mice in the study were greater than the average daily human intake.

Made from seaweed, the safety of another common emulsifier – carrageenan – has been the subject of debate for many years. In 2018, the European Commission re-evaluated its use. They found it safe to consume, however they did note a lack of data. A few studies have linked carrageenan with impaired glucose tolerance in mice, and inflammatory responses in both mice and humans.

Carrageenan seaweed, in its pre-processed state

Keeping dairy delicious, without digestive discomfort

Sugar plays a fundamental role in making ice cream taste and feel the way that it does. Full inverts depress freezing points, increasing ‘scoopability’ in ice-creams and sorbets, and limiting how much ice is formed when the product is frozen. Invert syrups also help to release the flavours from fruit ingredients, so if you take the sugar away, it needs to be replaced with a host of additives.

The sweet taste in ice cream can come from sugar alcohols, like malitol or xylitol for example. Sugar alcohols are organic compounds, and although they come from sugar, they undergo so much processing to get to their end state that they aren’t technically sugar any more, although their chemical structure is similar. They contain a fair amount of carbohydrate, which can be dangerous for diabetics, and when consumed in excess they can cause bloating and diarrhoea.

Some additives – often used to replace texture in sugar free products – have been found to cause health issues

Chicory root – a herb native to North America and Asia – is becoming more and more common in ice cream and sugar free products of all kinds, because it adds both sweetness and texture in the absence of sugar. It’s a powerful ‘prebiotic’: a superfood for your gut bacteria, which can be a good thing for some people, but if you suffer from IBS symptoms, prebiotics can cause more pain than pleasure. Stomach issues appear to be a recurring theme with sugar free ice creams. Some brands are reducing or omitting sugar adding more milk protein to their recipes in a bid to make their ice creams more scoopable. However, excess milk protein, called casein, can also lead to bowel troubles.

It’s difficult to replicate invert syrup’s powers of scoopability without any kind of sugar

Health conscious consumers shy away from synthetic sugar replacements

recent survey by the AI shopping assistant CodeCheck found that while 99 percent of consumers said they were concerned about the total sugar content in their food, only two percent of them were looking for sugar free products. Artificial sugar alternatives such as stevia and sorbitol were ‘frowned upon’, according to researchers at the company.

There’s no denying the global obesity problem, but to minimise weight gain we need to think beyond simply lowering the energy content of our favourite foods, which reduces the quality of them. Artificial sweeteners and texture enhancers may be lower in calories than sugar, but they slow our metabolism and make us hungrier, among a host of other long and short term potential side effects. Sugar helps produce the hormone leptin, which tells the brain that the body has had enough carbohydrates. It’s better to opt for foods with natural ingredients we recognise instead of ones we can’t pronounce that might save us a few calories.

Ragus manufactures bulk sugars for industrial applications. To learn more about our products, please contact our Customer Services Team. To see more sugar news and updates, continue browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn. 

Ibrahim Belo

With a primary responsibility for manufactured product quality control, Ibrahim works within our supplier chain, factory and production laboratory. He has a focus on continuous improvement, implementing and maintaining our technical and quality monitoring processes, ensuring standards and product specifications are met.

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