Sugar-Free Products (or with less sugar)

Sugar-Free Products (or with less sugar)

Today’s entry is a bit longer than usual, but I don’t dare to split it into two. So, hang in there. I’ve tried to summarize many aspects of intensive sweeteners and polyols, as they cover a lot of ground. But surely, if you’re interested, you can find more information in books and articles.

We’ve discussed the roles of sugar in baking and other baked goods, but we haven’t talked about how to reduce the amount of this ingredient or replace it entirely to create sugar-free products.

Sugar is a fundamental ingredient in many baked goods. We’ve already discussed its importance in bread making, but it’s also crucial in the production of cakes, cookies, fillings, etc. Its primary function is sweetness. If sweetness were the only function, replacing it would be straightforward. Unfortunately, in most baked products, sugar serves other functions. Sugar is the primary food for yeast and other microorganisms in fermentation processes; it participates in Maillard reactions, influencing the colour and aroma on the surface of products. It also aids in colour through caramelization and affects the preservation of some products by reducing water activity, among other functions. In cakes and cookies, it also has a structural function.

However, sugar is not a product that should be a priority in our diet, quite the opposite. You may hear that sugar is essential for life, and that’s true. But the necessary doses of sugar are minimal, and we acquire them through minimal food intake. Only people with significant restrictions on sugar consumption, such as those with glycogen storage diseases, need to regulate sugar intake, usually through starch intake, which releases sugar slowly as it hydrolyses in the body. It’s essential to note that these people cannot consume sugars or products containing them, such as fruits or starchy products that quickly transform into glucose in the body. For diabetics, with significant restrictions, the intake of starchy products is sufficient to meet these minimal requirements, although caution is needed for occasional sugar drops. Anything else you hear about sugar is usually part of campaigns to whitewash this product.

Why reduce sugar content?

Throughout history, humans have been attracted to sweet flavours, synonymous with a quick energy source. However, society has changed significantly in recent centuries. Sedentary lifestyles have increased, and caloric needs have decreased in most cases. Additionally, longevity has significantly increased, and we now worry about diseases that were of little importance centuries ago, as people used to die before experiencing them (diseases associated with old age, in general).

Although we won’t delve into the problems of high sugar consumption in this entry, its negative influence on certain heart diseases and dental caries is well-established, among other issues. In fact, sugar is listed in all dietary guidelines as a component to be avoided or consumed very occasionally. Some countries even require highlighting products with high sugar content with symbols on packaging, such as mandatory hexagons in some Latin American countries. In other cases, the presence of sugar is considered a negative factor for a certain nutritional evaluation of products, as in the case of the Nutriscore.

On the other hand, the diabetic community has been growing enormously in recent decades, partly due to the increased life expectancy of individuals, as a significant portion of diabetics develop the condition after a certain age.

For all these reasons, there is a growing interest in reducing the amount of sugar in formulations or eliminating it altogether. In the former case, the aim is to achieve a better nutritional image, usually associated with the removal of hexagons (in countries where they are mandatory) or a better Nutriscore classification. However, if this change reduces the organoleptic quality of the product and the nutritional improvement cannot be conveyed to the consumer, the result can be negative. Some large companies that can afford significant advertising or information campaigns can communicate this to consumers through them.

In other cases, the goal is to eliminate sugar from formulations completely. These products are usually targeted at specific populations with significant restrictions on sugar consumption, such as diabetics. As mentioned, these groups are growing significantly, and developing these products can be very interesting in covering an increasingly important market niche.

Finally, some companies try to remove the word “sugar” from labeling to achieve a better nutritional image. This has increased in recent years due to strong campaigns against sugar consumption and its poor nutritional image, especially among certain groups. But, as we will see, most of the time, it’s somewhat “tricky,” and an informed consumer can easily detect it.

As we have seen, sugar plays a crucial role in the formulations of many baked products, and its incorporation is usually essential to achieve maximum pleasure when consumed. Therefore, its substitution will not be easy.

Removing sugar from labeling

In most countries, it is mandatory to include a list of ingredients on the label. In this list, the ingredients must appear in order of their importance in the formulation. Let’s see how we can delay the appearance of the word “sugar” in this list or eliminate it. However, the strategies usually followed respond more to the importance of achieving a certain image than to improving the nutritional quality of the final product. And since the total sugar content is not reduced with these strategies, a well-informed consumer, who not only analyses the ingredient list but also the nutritional composition, should easily detect this “deception.”

A simple first strategy is to combine different types of sugars. If we start with a formula in which the only sugar used is sucrose, and we replace it with a mixture of sucrose, glucose, inverted sugar, honey, etc., the amount of each of these sugars is reduced compared to the total, and their position in the ingredient list can move from the top to further down. In some cases, the use of different sugars does not respond to this motive but seeks specific functionalities of some of these sugars. For example, a lower sweetening power with glucose or enhancing external colour with inverted sugar.

The second strategy is to replace sugar with products that contain it in large quantities and have a better image. It is very common to use products like honey, and in some countries, especially in North America, maple syrup, to provide the necessary sugar in formulations. Recently, the use of molasses or concentrates of fruits or sweet materials, such as plums or agave, has also become popular. While these products provide more than just sugar, such as minerals, some bioactive substances, or even fibre, depending on the one used, the problem of the high sugar content in the final product is not eliminated. Moreover, for products with lower sugar content, a certain reformulation will be necessary to adapt to the new ingredients.

A third strategy involves the use of hydrolysed flours or their hydrolysis in the same process. The starch present in flours is composed of glucose units. Adequately hydrolysed, it can give rise to sugars such as maltose or glucose. In fact, globally, glucose is produced from corn starch primarily. Therefore, a hydrated flour, subjected to action to make starches accessible and subjected to the action of various enzymes, can contain a high sugar content. And if enzymes like glucoamylase are used, it also has a certain sweetening power. In conventional baking processes, there is usually a certain amount of damaged starch and amylase enzymes, sufficient to generate the sugars necessary for fermentation processes. Sometimes, sugars are added to accelerate this transformation and must be indicated in the ingredient list. The use of hydrolysed flours can be a good alternative. Similarly, the inclusion of heat-treated flours (with a higher amount of damaged starch) and enzymes in formulations where these do not exist but where the presence of fermentable sugars is essential, such as in many gluten-free bread preparations, can also be a good strategy.

Reducing part of the sugar

This is always a good strategy, either to achieve a better image (hexagons, Nutriscore, etc.) or to try to make a product a little healthier. Many formulations have a bit too much sugar, and its content can be reduced. In any case, when developing a product, it’s interesting to try to minimize the sugar content. Obviously, the significant problem to avoid, or at least minimize, is the potential loss of organoleptic quality. Each case must be studied meticulously. In some cases, the problem is that reducing sugar reduces the shelf life, and in that case, it may be necessary to incorporate or increase the dose of preservatives, which can be natural in some cases. But in most cases, the most critical issue will be the loss of sweetness.

To enhance sweetness, several strategies can be considered. One is the inclusion of some aromas associated mentally with sweet taste, such as cinnamon. Surprisingly, we also associate some colours with sweet taste, such as pink. Obviously, turning a product pink or with a cinnamon flavour is a significant change, but it can be studied in the development of new products.

Another alternative is to replace the sugar present in the formulation with other sugars with a higher sweetening power. Thus, fructose, or even inverted sugar, has a higher sweetening power than sucrose, and with some substitution, the sugar content can be reduced.

Other aspects such as the particle size of sugar or the pH of the product can also influence sweetness perception. A finer particle size can increase the sensation of sweetness due to its larger contact surface with taste buds. However, regarding particle size, it should be noted that in most products addressed in this blog, sugar has dissolved in water, and the initial particle size becomes less important in the final product.

But, in general, it must be considered that some formulations, with a large amount of sugar at their base and aimed at achieving a high organoleptic quality product based, at least in part, on its sweetness, are better kept. As I usually say, the consumer already knows that they “sin,” but at least they want to enjoy it and will not tolerate a loss in that enjoyment or pleasure. What the consumer has to do is reduce the intake of these products to special occasions.

Total elimination of sugars

As we said, a complete elimination of sugars can allow us to position our products well in the market by covering a market niche. And it is becoming more and more important when we think about products for the aging population, given the high incidence of diabetes in this group. In fact, the prevalence of diabetes in Spain is almost 15% of the population, although 30% are not diagnosed. But even so, it constitutes a significant market niche, especially for products that are consumed regularly, such as cookies or cakes. This percentage has increased significantly in recent years, partly due to the aging of the population, making this market niche increasingly interesting. And unlike other problems, such as allergies and some intolerances, in this case, cross-contamination usually does not pose a problem. Therefore, these are products that can be manufactured in the same facilities as the original products, with due precautions.

If the function of sugar is primarily sweetening, the solution is simple and relies on the use of intensive sweeteners, such as saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K, cyclamate, or their combinations. These products have a much higher sweetening power than sucrose, so a significant amount of sucrose can be replaced by minimal amounts of them. This has been the solution chosen by the carbonated beverage industry, with great success in recent years. Unfortunately, this solution is not viable in baked products for several reasons. Firstly, because sugar in these products has other functions, such as fermentation or structural functions. Secondly, because the heat treatment can alter the taste of these substances and lose some of their sweetening power, something that needs to be studied in each case. It could be a solution for certain fillings that do not undergo heat treatment, although it could affect their rheology and shelf life. There are treatises on these products, and I don’t think it is convenient to analyse them in-depth in this entry since they are not widely used in the products addressed in this blog. In fact, in many countries, they are not authorized for baked products. This is not because they are harmful but because they are not considered a suitable solution for any development of this type, and while they are not expressly prohibited, they are not authorized (positive lists).

Briefly, just a reminder of some important aspects of intensive sweeteners. Mixtures of saccharin and cyclamate are among the most used since the combination enhances the sweetening power of both. In addition, saccharin provides sweetness more quickly, while cyclamate extends the sensation of sweetness. However, saccharin leaves a bitter aftertaste perceived by some people (not everyone perceives it the same). Aspartame has better organoleptic quality, but it is not tolerated by people with phenylketonuria and does not withstand heat treatments well. But due to its better organoleptic quality and its ability to enhance certain flavours of acidic fruits, it has replaced saccharin/cyclamate in some applications. Acesulfame-K is also very interesting as it does not present strange aftertastes and is quite stable, but its sweetness, like saccharin, is perceived quickly but is also not perceived as long as in other sweeteners. Other sweeteners such as Thaumatin or Neohesperidin can also be interesting. But in all cases, in addition to their organoleptic characteristics, factors such as price or current legislation must be considered.

¿But, if intensive sweeteners are not the solution, how can we eliminate sugar in products such as cakes or cookies? This solution lies in polyols or sugar alcohols. These substances have a structure intermediate between sugars and alcohols and are usually industrially obtained from sugars, although they are also present in nature. The main advantage of polyols is that they perform the structural function that sugars have in products such as cakes and cookies and have good sweetening power in most cases, some of them very similar to sucrose. The main problem with these ingredients is that they can have a laxative effect, which must be indicated on the label. These products are also not well tolerated by people with irritable bowel syndrome, as they are included in the so-called FODMAPs, already discussed in our blog. On the other hand, they do not participate in Maillard reactions, nor do they caramelize like sugars, so the final colour of the products may be slightly lighter. And unlike intensive sweeteners, which, when used in very low amounts, barely provide calories, most polyols provide around 2.4 Kcal/g.

Let’s see some of them.

Maltitol takes the spotlight when it comes to replacing sugar in products like cookies or cakes. This is due to its low cost and the ability to substitute sugar in the same proportion, as it has a high sweetening power (around 80% of sucrose). The results of this substitution are very good, and some consumers don’t notice the difference.

Xylitol is my preferred choice for replacing sucrose in certain products since its sweetening power is similar to sucrose, and it has a slight refreshing effect when dissolved. Although it should be noted that its effect is not as noticeable in baked products where it has been dissolved as in other products. However, the significant drawback of this sweetener is its high cost, at least compared to other alternatives like maltitol, so its usage is limited.

Another interesting alternative is erythritol. This polyol has a slightly lower sweetening power than maltitol and is also somewhat less soluble, making it not the best organoleptic option. However, unlike most polyols, it contributes minimal calories. Therefore, if one of the goals of eliminating sugar is to reduce the final product’s calorie content, it can be an interesting option.

Sorbitol has a lower sweetening power than maltitol and is not the best choice, although it is used in some cake-like products as a humectant due to its high hygroscopic power, not as a sugar substitute, or at least not to eliminate it completely.

A last polyol that may be interesting for some applications is isomaltose. This polyol does not have a high sweetening power (50-60% of sucrose), but unlike other polyols, it has very low hygroscopicity. This makes it ideal for products like candies that need to avoid quickly softening by absorbing water. But also for cookies, preventing them from absorbing water and becoming soft. Due to its low sweetening power, it is usually used in combination with other polyols like maltitol.

There are other polyols, such as lactitol or mannitol, but they are rarely used in the production of baked goods.

Similar to polyols, there are other substances that can play the structural role of sucrose in certain preparations. Among them, some fibres stand out, such as polydextrose or oligofructose (a smaller version than inulin). The main problem with these products when they aim to replace sucrose is that they have minimal sweetening power, so one of the most important functionalities is not achieved, and the final products end up with a taste that is not well appreciated by consumers. Their use can be studied in combination with polyols but never as the sole substitute. It’s also important to consider that in some cases, they may undergo partial hydrolysis, generating very dark colours on the surface of the products. On the positive side, they often have a well-studied prebiotic function, especially in the case of oligofructose.

If you are interested in these topics, it’s always valuable to expand your knowledge in polyols, bulking agents, and intensive sweeteners. In this entry, I have only highlighted some points of interest for the development of baked products.

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