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What additives are used to replace pure sugar’s functional properties?

21/09/2023 By Ben Eastick in Food technology Properties & functions, Sugar chemistry

Sugar brings a wide range of functional properties in addition to sweetness, so when it is removed from a food or beverage product, replacements must be found. Products that have sugar removed to reduce calories are then filled with additives to replace those functional properties.    

Sugar is so much more than a sweetener

Most of us think of sugar as a sweetener, flavouring confectionery, cakes and soft drinks, as well as sweetening our morning tea and breakfast cereal, and the jam we spread on our toast. However, as a functional ingredient in industrial food and beverage production, sugar plays a role beyond simply sweetening. As it performs many roles, it is found in a vast array of food and beverage products.   

Sugar provides colour, it is a bulking agent and texturiser that gives food its texture, it affects mouthfeel, and is a satiating agent that makes us feel fuller. It is a humectant, which means it is a hygroscopic material that absorbs and retains water. This humectancy keeps food moist and kills microorganisms, so has preservative qualities.

Cane and beet sugars are natural plant-based products

Sugar is a natural product made from plants. In temperate climates, sugar beet (above left) is widely cultivated, in both hemispheres. Sugarcane (above right) only grows in warmer climates.

Sugar is a single, natural plant-based ingredient made from sugarcane and sugar beet plants that delivers benefits. If sugar is removed from an industrial food or beverage product, these properties must be replaced with other functional ingredients.

Typically, these ingredients are called additives. Additives are identified by name on food labels, often as E numbers or they are given generic descriptions, such as ‘colourants’ or ‘stabilisers’.

Non-nutritive sweeteners are used to replace pure sugar

If the objective of the industrial food or beverage product reformulation is to reduce calories, then a non-nutritive sweetener (NNS) is used to replace the flavouring properties of natural sugars made from sugarcane or sugar beet plants.

Non-nutritive sweeteners have much greater flavour intensity, which means much smaller amounts are required to achieve the same taste, compared to natural sugars. They are generally identified on food labels using ‘E’ numbers.

A NNS offers no nutritional benefits but contains low or zero calories. Technically, the NNS term should be used rather than the more commonly used artificial sweetener, as some NNSs are plant-based. These include low-calorie sweeteners made from the plant Stevia rebaudiana, which is also known as sweetleaf, sugarleaf or candyleaf.

Like all food products, an NNS is tested and approved for use by national regulators. According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), while ‘the findings from research into sweeteners and health is mixed’, they are currently believed to be safe.

The NHS also lists the sweeteners approved for use in the UK as:

Acesulfame K (E950)

Aspartame (E951)

Erythritol (E968)

Saccharin (E954)

Sorbitol (E420)

Steviol glycosides (E960)

Sucralose (E955)

Xylitol (E967)

Different natural sugar products have different levels of sweetness. Research suggests this is due to the length of particular hydrogen bonds in the sugar molecule’s structure. Some NNSs have a level of sweetness that is thousands of times that of a natural sugar used for sweetening.

As a result, much less NNS by volume is required to give the same level of sweetness as natural sugar, and the majority of NNSs have very different molecular structures to sugars.

In an industrial food recipe this causes problems because, as highlighted above, sugar does so much more than sweeten.

Bulking agents, structure, texture and mouthfeel

Sugar is a foundational ingredient for the structure, mouthfeel and volume of the food and beverage products we consume. The molecular structure of sugars such as sucrose, or table sugar, and its constituents glucose and fructose, gives rise to specific material behaviours and structures. When used as an ingredient, it fills a lot of space, giving food volume and making us feel fuller after eating and drinking, hence the terms bulking agent and satiating agent.    

Preserves and jams are good examples of food products that use sugar for multiple properties. Sugar acts as a flavour, a preservative, a texturiser and a bulking agent.

Preserves and jams are good examples of food products that use natural pure sugars for multiple properties. Sugar acts as a flavour, a preservative, a texturiser and a bulking agent. Replacing all these functions in sugar-free jams requires multiple additives.

Reformulating an industrial food product to reduce calories by taking out the sugar also means taking out the substance that provides the structure to the food, its texture and mouthfeel, and its physical bulk. Replacing sugar with a NNS does not replace these qualities, as the molecular structure and chemical behaviour of a NNS is very different from sugar.

There are thousands of substances that are used in the industrial food and beverage sector as low-calorie bulking agents and texturisers. Some of the more common substances used to replace sugar include:

Polydextrose is a synthetic polymer made from glucose molecules joined together. It is often used to replace sugar in industrial food recipes as it cannot be digested so is a ‘no calorie’ replacement.

Inulin, a polysaccharide also known as fructan, is a plant-based bulking agent. It is commonly extracted from chicory root for industrial food applications but can be found in a range of plants.    

Resistant starches are common sugar substitutes as they cannot be digested and broken down into sugars in the gut but have some similar performance characteristics to sugar in industrial recipes. Chemically-modified starches, often identified on food labels as ‘modified starch’, have been synthetically altered to have additional properties, such as improved structure or greater humectancy.

Maltodextrins are manufactured mainly from corn or wheat starch. They are an oligosaccharide, or kind of short chain polymer, made from monosaccharides like glucose and fructose. Commonly used in baked goods as a sugar replacement, they are low calorie and low viscosity, so have a bulking effect and prevent the creation of large crystals in baking to improve texture and mouthfeel.   

Humectant and preservative properties

Sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it adsorbs sugar from the air around it and absorbs water when in solution, or in a baking mix. Its chemical structure includes active elements that attract and bind water molecules. Binding water in this way has three major effects:

Antimicrobial properties: microbes such as moulds and bacteria cannot live and reproduce without water. By absorbing water, sugar restricts or eliminates microbial growth. That’s why it has a long shelf life, if properly stored, as do bread, cakes, and other food and beverage products. Crystallised fruits, for example, have high concentrations of sugar. 

Brioche is a sweet loaf that uses sugar for many functions

Brioche is a sweet loaf that uses sugar for many functions, including as a texturiser, preservative and colourant.

Texturiser: by absorbing water, sugar prevents gluten development in baked goods, which alters the texture. Recipes that use higher quantities of sugar, such as pastries and cakes, tend to have lighter and fluffier textures, and stay soft and moist for longer. Less sugar in baked goods leads to a denser structure.   

Pasties use sugar, and other ingredients, for a lighter texture.

Pastries use sugar’s humectant properties, and other ingredients, for a lighter texture that stays soft and moist for longer.

Antifreeze: sugar depresses the freezing point of water, meaning it stays in liquid form at lower temperatures. It does this because the large sugar molecules interrupt the physical processes by which water ice forms. Molasses is sometimes used as an antifreeze on roads, like grit or road salt. This enables sugar to control the amount of ice formed in ice cream when freezing, and less ice means a softer scoop.

Sugar's antifreeze properties help make ice cream more scoopable

Sugar’s antifreeze properties mean less ice crystals form during ice cream production, which helps make ice cream more scoopable.

Replacing these three foundational ingredient properties can require several different additives.

Preservatives, used in baking to replace sugars or to lower the amount of sugar, include benzoates, propionates, sorbates, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), citric acid and polyphosphates. Most of these are not natural ingredients.

There are thousands of texturisers available. Allulose is a natural sugar with a similar texture and mouthfeel to sucrose, but with a fraction of the calories. However, this was only recently manufactured at scale for food applications and is pending regulatory approval in many jurisdictions. Resistant starches, maltodextrins and proteins are texturisers that commonly replace sugars.

Propylene glycol (E 1520) is a widely used synthetic food additive, chosen not just for its antifreeze properties but also as a texturiser, bulking agent and emulsifier. It is found in many foods to replace the humectant properties of sugar, such as baked goods and cakes, ice cream, desserts, sauces and confectionery. It is also an industrial antifreeze and coolant.

Colourants replacing sugar

Sugar provides colour for food and beverage products through its natural properties and as a result of reactions that occur when it is heated as part of food manufacturing processes, such as baking. For example, removing the sugar from many baked goods means the Maillard reaction cannot occur. Biscuits, breads, cakes, muffins and many other products would not acquire the golden-brown colour that is so familiar to consumers.

A combination of the Maillard reaction and caramelisation gives baked goods, like these biscuits, their distinctive colours.

A combination of the Maillard reaction and caramelisation gives baked goods, like these biscuits, their distinctive colours.

There are many natural and artificial colours available to replace the colours created through caramelisation and the Maillard reaction, and the natural colours brought by pure sugar products. The use of plant-based versus petroleum-based food dye varies considerably by location and regulation.     

In conclusion, removing the sugar from a traditional cake or sweet bread recipe could result in additives that include additional sweeteners, bulking agents, texturisers, humectants, colorants and preservatives.

Our sugars are not only pure sweeteners enhancing the taste of foods and beverages, but functional ingredients that provide foundational properties to food products, such as colour and texture. To learn more about our pure sugar products, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn. 

Ben Eastick

A board member and co-leader of the business, Ben is responsible for our marketing strategy and its execution by the agency team he leads and is the guardian of our corporate brand vision. He also manages key customers and distributors.

In 2005, he took on the role of globally sourcing our ‘speciality sugars’. With his background in laboratory product testing and following three decades of supplier visits, his expertise means we get high quality, consistent and reliable raw materials from ethical sources.

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