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Sweetness matters: Understanding the nuanced challenges in sugar reduction formulas – article

May 12, 2021

6 Min Read

Consumers have long been hardwired to enjoy the taste of sugar in their foods. But as they connect the dots between lower-sugar diets and overall health, added sugars have become one of today’s top targets for intake reduction. For consumers focused on health and longevity, added sugars are associated with a variety health concerns. Reinforcing the focus, new sugar-related regulatory measures, including updated product labels requirements enforced by FDA, and taxes on high-sugar products are driving greater awareness and providing motivation for new solutions.

For product innovators, this has generated huge challenges to find new ingredients that can replace the functionality of sugar while also maintaining preferred taste and texture attributes. Achieving these goals holds big potential for brands as demand for these products grows. Product launches with reduced-sugar claims have seen steady growth since 2017, with a 17.2% CAGR.[1] The pace has even accelerated since the COVID-19 outbreak, as consumers shifted their behavior to eating at home and trying to stay healthy, they looked to labels to discover that low-sugar formulations provided a healthier way to indulge without feeling guilty.[2]

But these attitudes are complicated. Globally, consumers increasingly recognize they should consume less sugar. Data from Innova Market Insights noted that 40% of global consumers reduced their sugar intake in 2020 and even more (45%) reported this in North America.[3] Additionally, this data reported they are motivated to cut back on sugar by several factors, including the prevention of diabetes and obesity, and to lose pounds or manage weight. But at the same time, they want a recognizable eating or drinking experience, which means that developers must take an informed approach to product formulation. 

Suppliers like Ingredion have built a leadership position in the space by developing solutions and capabilities that align both with consumer demands and the complex sugar-reduction goals of product developers.

There are fundamentally two aspects of sugar reduction. The first is replacing the sweetness of sugar.  But it often takes more than that to meet taste and sensory targets. Sugar is also a bulking agent, building this back into products is referred to by Ingredion as the “functional build back.” And, replicating the textural functionality of sugar—its ability to create cookies that are crispy and browned or ice cream with that perfect scoopability—is an even bigger challenge. Ingredion has developed a portfolio of sugar reduction solutions to address both sweet taste and functional build back.

The newest addition to Ingredion’s toolbox is allulose, a rare sugar that occurs naturally in foods like figs and raisins and tastes similar to sucrose sugar but is about 70% as sweet. Ingredion’s ASTRAEA® Allulose has become an important option because, while high-intensity sweeteners can replicate the sweet taste of sugar and, as noted previously, reduced-sugar products also often require an ingredient to build back sugar’s bulk and solids to recreate desired sensory appeal.  

“Allulose is a unique sugar reduction tool because it brings sweetness, functionality and bulking attributes that are very similar to sugar,” explained Afrouz Naeini, regional platform leader—Sugar Reduction and Specialty Sweeteners for Ingredion. “That is the closest a formulator can get to a sugar-like tool in formulating a sugar-reduced product, which can bring the taste, functionality and appeal of a full-sugar product.”

Allulose provides comparable functional bulking, browning and freeze-point depression properties to sugar while adding only 0.4 calories per gram to a formulation. The ingredient is now FDA GRAS approved[4] and is exempt from sugar labeling rules.[5]

Where there is a need to further reduce sugar while retaining sweetness, stevia-based ingredients have become the go-to solution, providing label-friendly plant-based ingredient that offers zero calories. PureCircle by Ingredion is committed to optimizing the amazing sweetness qualities of the stevia plant with ongoing research and investment in proprietary stevia varietals, sustainable processes and vertically integrated supply as well as unparalleled expertise and insights in sugar reduction technique.

PureCircle’s next-generation stevia leaf sweeteners offer a variety of specific category production benefits: Category, Foundation, Breakthrough and Flavor Modifiers.  

  • Category ingredients offer Six Sigma Solutions, specialized select extracts of stevia flavor modifiers and sweeteners optimized to enhance foods and beverages in specific applications, each designed to provide better results and address the unique challenges of different product categories.

  • Foundation stevia ingredients are the core of the most popular consumer products and provide a sustainable solution for reliably and cost-effectively reducing or eliminating sugar from products in a plant-based way.

  • Breakthrough ingredients represent a new era in taste and sugar reduction solutions. Without compromising taste for nutrition and healthier options, these specialty stevia ingredients deliver sugar-like sweetness sensory qualities, ideal for low and no added sugar products.

  • Flavor modifiers offer more than sweetness optimization, these solutions improve mouthfeel, block bitterness and enhance savory notes.  Flavor modifiers can create a broad spectrum of taste sensations for a wide range of applications.

To help customers utilize these ingredients for optimal taste and quality, Ingredion has conducted extensive R&D and developed deep applications expertise to help formulators save time and get products to market quickly. For example, Ingredion’s experts understand that stevia and allulose work well together and offer synergies in sweetness. “A combination of allulose and stevia can achieve higher sweetness compared to stevia alone - and together, they can provide a sweetness profile, with upfront sweetness and sweet linger, that is close to sucrose,” Naeini explained.

An important consideration when selecting sweeteners of choice is understanding consumer perceptions about sweetener ingredients. Stevia is now well-known and perceived as natural by nearly 70% of consumers. However, because it is so new, allulose has less awareness.

To help customers understand consumer perceptions with regard to allulose, Ingredion conducted a deep dive consumer study on awareness and preferences for the ingredient in seven key food and beverage categories, Naeini noted. As was expected, she added, the survey found initial unaided consumer acceptance of allulose was below 10%. But after being exposed to a short factual definition–the definition provided by Ingredion described allulose as a rare sugar that tastes and functions like sugar and contains nearly no calories or grams of sugar and also noted that allulose is FDA-approved for use in food and beverage products and is a good replacement for sugar–consumer acceptability jumped to 96% on average across the studied categories, with an interest in purchase/trial at an average of 94%.

A key insight from the study is around consumer education and its role in driving consumer acceptability and trial, Naeini explained. “Overall allulose acceptance is promising, even at lower awareness levels the default perception is not negative and without exposure to the functional definition, once consumers’ attention is brought to allulose on labels, their acceptance of it as a sweetener is on average 60% across the studied categories.” Again, this goes up to 94% when consumers are exposed to more factual information.

Such insights across ingredients and consumer segments, both globally and regionally, make Ingredion a leader in the sugar reduction space. This knowhow, research and cutting-edge technology come together to assist customers, partnering with them to create innovative reduced-sugar products without compromising taste or quality.

[1] Innova Database. Sugar related positionings=no added sugar, reduced sugar, low sugar and/or sugar-free claims.

[2] Innova Market Insights. Innova Health and Nutrition Survey 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] U.S. Food and Drug Administration, GRAS #498.

[5] U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA Allows the Low Calorie Sweetener Allulose to be Excluded from Total and Added Sugars on Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels When used as an Ingredient. April 17, 2019.



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