The downside of sugar is that excessive consumption is linked to a number of chronic health conditions and over the past 10 years, there have been growing calls to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet to improve the overall health of the population.
As a recent White Paper on sugar reduction from Spoonshot states: ‘The main reason for so much investment in this space is because replacing sugar is incredibly hard. Sugar is cheap, available in plenty, and incredibly versatile in terms of its functional roles in food preparation.
Consumers are less likely to be interested in artificial sweeteners due to the various health issues associated with them. Among online conversations about sugar alternatives, consumers were more prone to highlight natural substitutes than artificial sweeteners.’
“I am hesitant to call it a trend, but we're going to see a lot more focus on weight management again in the coming year, particularly because of Covid and the problems that it has brought with it and also because people are kind of going back to a really health-conscious lifestyle,” says Ranjana Sundaresan, Spoonshot’s lead research analyst.
Another factor is that among consumers and businesses, interest in sugar reduction showed the greatest increase among low or no claims in food.
This pressure has resulted in the evolution of an entire industry in the space of sugar replacement and reduction solutions, researching new technologies and ingredients to use for this cause.
New types of sugars, sweeteners, and technologies have emerged recently as a result of research into this space. The White Paper reveals that plant-based, clean-label, and non-GMO claims are also common among these emerging sweeteners.
However, it states, no single solution has yet emerged yet to replace all the functions carried out by sugar.
This is because when it is added to a product, it adds layers of complexity to the entire production process. Replacing sugar often involves incorporating multiple ingredients to carry out the different functional and sensory roles of sugar.
The White Paper reports that recent solutions for sugar reduction include utilising new ingredients to make sweeteners, new technologies to make extraction more efficient, and methods to trick the brain into thinking that a product is sweeter than it actually is.
Giving up on sugar hasn’t been easy - for consumers or manufacturers. Consumers want their favourite foods to contain less sugar, but not necessarily at the altar of taste. This balancing act of reformulation has been quite a challenge for manufacturers, especially since sugar plays a vital role in more than just flavour.
Sundaresan says sugar is an incredibly versatile ingredient, that does more than just one thing.
“So, finding a replacement to do that, a single replacement, is going to be very hard for manufacturers. So they're going to have to figure out how to use an alternative to sugar but then retain not just the taste but the properties that people usually associate with particular foods that are using them.”
She says consumers really want clean foods now. “It’s really important because, they don't want to see things on the ingredient label that they can't pronounce. And so that movement is going to get really strong, because of the pandemic, what a lot of people have found is that they could control a lot of what they consume because they've spent the last year to 18 months, figuring out how to cook at home, it’s a massive game changer … a lot of these things have come into focus.”
The Spoonshot White Paper cites an interesting case regarding Nestlé’s Milkybar Wowsomes and the company's attempt in 2015 to bring down the sugar content of its chocolates. The confectionery giant’s solution came in the form of a technique discovered to hollow out sugar particles, which would dissolve faster than regular sugar crystals and deliver the sweet sensation more rapidly. Simply put, people would be able to perceive the same sweetness from these new crystals as with regular sugar, but overall sugar use would be lower.
A technique that involved spraying a mixture of sugar, milk powder, and water into warm air, allowing for the formation of amorphous and porous sugar crystal particles was touted as having the potential to reduce the sugar content of chocolate by as much as 40%.
In 2018, Milkybar Wowsomes was launched in the UK, proclaiming 30% less sugar compared to its rivals. Unfortunately, this success was short-lived. In early 2020, Nestlé’ announced it was discontinuing Wowsomes due to poor demand.
Other confectionery companies have attempted low-sugar alternatives to varying degrees of success, but as Spoonshot states, since the pandemic consumer behaviour and tastes may have changed in terms of purchasing and consumption.
“I do think that the way forward is not really about getting rid of sugar, it's about modulating how much people are consuming,” says Sundaresan.
Replacing sugar means going back to square one for companies, which can be an expensive proposition.
In chocolate, for example, sugar accounts for around half the product. It adds bulk to bars of chocolate, gives texture, and affects how chocolate melts. If sugar were to be switched out for artificial sweeteners, it would change all the features of chocolate that we know and love. Even with its patented hollow sugar, Nestlé had to use other ingredients (like oats) to bulk up the bar.
The Spoonshot White Paper highlights another interesting fact: ‘For example, sweeteners often have a far more intense sweetness than sugar, so much lower quantities are needed in addition to a separate bulking agent.
‘It means trial and error in formulation to get the ratios right as well as actually finding the right ingredients as replacements. And since multiple ingredients will be needed to essentially make up for the role of one, costs could go up.
‘In addition, because of the low quantity of the sweetener needed, it has to either be unitised or manually measured out and added during the production process. The small quantities may also have a higher cost implication due to supply chain minimum order quantity (MOQ) that can result in ingredient write-offs further down the line.’
The authors of the White Paper also say: “A common theme we’re seeing among such products and technologies is their focus on having a natural and clean label base. Consumers are increasingly demanding natural ingredients and are also rejecting products that do not offer the same rounded flavour of sugar. “
Their research shows:
- 30% of social media conversations linked to sugar reduction are about clean eating
- 11% of social media conversations linked to sugar reduction are about natural
The paper concludes by stating that given the health issues linked to sugar, governments are worried about increasing public health costs and impact on national GDP, and this has spurred them to take these measures. COVID-19 has further increased concerns for public health officials.
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