Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea,” wrote Henry Fielding in the 18th century. Then and now, conversation and entertainment add a dimension to the enjoyment of food that can’t be duplicated in the lab. When it comes to sweeteners, however, the development bench contains more than the basic sugar and honey available in Fielding’s day, and consumers are becoming increasingly savvy.
Consumers are more aware of how food choices impact their health and nutritional state. “In 2007, the IFIC Foundation reported 70% of Americans are somewhat or extremely concerned with the amount of sugar they consume,” says Carl Jaundoo, associate program coordinator food applications, Roquette America, Inc., Keokuk, IA. “The reduced-sugar trend is especially noticeable in products designed for kids.”
A popular trend is sweetener blending. “Instead of going completely sugar free or no sugar added, a lot of people are asking ‘How can we take out 10%, 20% or maybe 30% of the sugar or HFCS and replace it with something that’s sweeter, like a high-intensity sweetener,’” says Michelle Kozora, food scientist technical services, Tate & Lyle, Decatur, IL. “A lot of times there’s no taste change. They’re able to actually improve their nutrition label by having less sugar and fewer calories, but then, in turn, they’re able to save money a lot of times when they’re doing that.”
Consumers are not only watching their sweetener intake but, according to Jeri Longtin-Kloss, communications and marketing manager, Cargill Sweetness Solutions, Wayzata, MN, “today’s consumers are also interested in the potential effects that sweetener ingredients may have on their energy levels and blood sugar response. Therefore, it’s not surprising that food formulators are looking for natural ingredients that provide sweetness but fewer calories than traditional nutritive sweeteners do.”
In fact, Paul Vajda, marketing manager, Cargill Sweet Design™ Sweetener Systems, says “there are glycemic benefits to a blend vs. sugar that can’t be quantified by caloric reduction alone.”
Not simply sugar replacement
“Sweeteners are one of the more complicated ingredients to replace in a product, because you have a lot of things to consider,” says Kozora. “All sweeteners have a relative sweetness level. If you’re going to take sugar out, you need to balance that relative sweetness. It’s not exact. Other ingredients can help bring out more or less sweetness.”
Sucrose, or sugar, typically serves as the standard for sweetness intensity. If sugar has a sweetness level of 1.0, 55% high fructose corn syrup has about 0.99 relative sweetness; 42% HFCS is 0.92; crystalline fructose is 1.17. The high-intensity sweetener sucralose is 600. Aspartame is 180 to 200 times sweeter than sugar. Jaundoo says lactose has a relative sweetness of 0.35.
Calories contributed by sweeteners can vary. Nutritive sweeteners such as sucrose, fructose and lactose have four calories per gram. Sucralose is not metabolized by the body, and therefore contributes zero calories. Aspartame is metabolized but contributes slightly fewer calories than sugar: 3.8 calories per gram. However, due to its high sweeteness level, the calories it delivers at normal usage rates are negligible.
While that sounds relatively straightforward, changing sweeteners can impact flavor perception, even if relative sweetness is the same. “Crystalline fructose is detected on your tongue up front,” says Kozora. “Sugar is a little bit delayed and then lingers. If you’re going to put some crystalline fructose in where there’s sugar, then the actual sweetness composition is going to change. You’re going to get some up-front sweetness, which could be a good thing, but it might be different. You just have to know that. Sucralose has a similar profile to sugar, and if you take out some sugar and put in some sucralose, you will end up with a similar profile.”
Before choosing a sweetener system for a reduced-sugar product, developers must understand the full function of sweeteners in the original, full-sugar formula.
Photo: Orafti Active Food Ingredients
Stability is another important consideration. “In beverages, you want to make sure that you replace the potency, but then you have acids and other flavors. You need to make sure that the sweetener that you choose is going to be stable to that acid,” Kozora advises. “Some sweeteners can degrade over time, due to the low-pH system.” These products may require overcompensating in the beginning to end up with the right amount of sweetness when the product is consumed. She notes that formulating these types of systems with sucralose can provide a solution, because it does have stability in a low pH range. “We’ve looked at it over a 12-month shelf life in an aluminum can at room temperature,” she says. “We’ve seen negligible loss in the level of sucralose, as well as other profile attributes like the flavor profile, the acid profile and things like that. They have had very little change, almost comparable to a sucrose or full HFCS beverage product.”
If a high-intensity sweetener replaces sugar or HFCS, bulk must be replaced. “You’re bringing back your sweetness, but you still have a portion of that formula to fill back,” Kozora says. “Likely, you will need to use bulking agents … something like maltodextrin, polydextrose or a fiber source. Beverages are great because, most often, your bulking agent is water.” And, because water is very cost effective, “you can see a lot of cost savings in that kind of a product,” she says.
Changing the sweetener may also change the acid pro- file. “You need to make sure the acid you formulate with doesn’t get masked by the new sweetener that you’ve incorporated,” says Kozora. Like sweeteners, “acids come on and go away at different times,” she continues. “Citric acid is very upfront, and malic acid is a little bit delayed. If you have a sucrose and citric acid combination, they complement each other and you taste both of them; whereas, if you were to use something like crystalline fructose and citric acid, you might have to incorporate some malic acid in order to help balance that acid profile, because the fructose will somewhat mask the citric acid.”
Sweeteners may exhibit synergy. In terms of relative sweetness, if sugar is 1.0 and fructose is 1.17, one would expect a 50:50 blend to be about 1.09. “You actually get 1.28,” says Kozora. “You actually get more sweetness at that ratio, which means that, if you use some fructose, you can reduce your sweetener by 28%. If you want to make a reduced-sugar claim, you need a 25% reduction from the full-sugar product.”
This synergy develops in part because fructose’s flavor is detected early, while sugar’s flavor is slightly delayed. Together, they create a “bigger overall sweetness profile,” says Kozora. “A similar synergy effect will come into play if you were to replace that sugar with sucralose.” In products that combine some HFCS and sugar or some HFCS and sucralose, “because of the fructose component of HFCS, you still get a little bit of the synergy effect,” she notes.
It’s important to remember that relative sweetness is exactly that—relative. This is especially true with high-intensity sweeteners. In the case of sucralose, 600 is only a ballpark number; potency will actually depend on the application. “Sometimes, in beverage applications, we see that it has a little less potency, maybe around 550, just because of the other ingredients,” Kozora says. “Sometimes, the carbonation or acids can impact the way that sweetener comes across.” She’s found it sometimes has a little more potency in bakery products, where it could reach “maybe 650 or 700.” She recommends that product designers use 600 as their starting guide, then “take their level of sugar or level of HFCS, if it’s 55% fructose, and divide that by 600” as the ideal starting point. Adjustments can be made from there, based on taste.
Sucralose can be used in a formula as low as 0.01%. In the lab, it is sometimes diffi cult working with such low percentages of ingredients. Pre-batching with other ingredients is one option; however, Tate & Lyle offers a liquid version of sucralose that’s a 25% solution that is 150 times sweeter than sugar. “You have a little less potency and it does become a little bit easier to dispense,” says Kozora. The company also offers some sucralose blends with either maltodextrin or a complete system. “That way, we’ve already preblended the product for them and they know that the level of sucralose in that product is what it is, and they can just add it,” she says.
The key to achieving appropriate sweetness levels is understanding all of the ingredients in the food product. It’s important to call on suppliers for technical support, and not only sweetener suppliers. “Flavor houses are very familiar with different sweeteners,” Kozora says. “If you tell them you’re formulating with a sucralose-sugar or a sucralose- HFCS blend, they will probably be able to recommend a different flavor to use. There are flavors that will work with different sweeteners.”
More than sweetness
It is critical to consider the full function of sugar in a formula. In bakery, for example, “functions include browning, texture, crumb structure, volume and batter viscosity,” Vajda says. Therefore, Cargill offers sweetener systems “designed to meet the needs of customers in terms of taste, functionality and cost.” These systems, which are blends of various polyols and high-intensity sweeteners combined with bulking agents, are currently targeted to the bakery industry. “They offer lower calories and provide the same functionality,” he says. Unlike traditional carbohydrates that have four calories per gram, these provide less than two calories per gram.
A sweetener system has to take browning, an important attribute in many foods, into consideration. “Crystalline fructose is great with browning,” says Kozora. However, “sucralose is an inert ingredient. It’s not going to brown. It’s not going to really react with anything in the system. That can be good,” she says. “For example, if you were making a sweet bacon, bacon already browns relatively easily. If you add sugar to it, it would brown more.” Adding sucralose doesn’t provide additional browning, but it adds sweetness. “In something like a caramel where you’re using the sugar to get that brown color, sucralose wouldn’t do that,” she continues, “so you would have to use a coloring agent on top of it in order to maintain that color. But things like HFCS and crystalline fructose brown great.”
Crystalline fructose also acts as a humectant and, because of its fructose, so does HFCS to a lesser extent. “This is great for things like bar applications where you want a chewy bar,” says Kozora. “The HFCS and crystalline fructose will help wrap the water up and hold on to it; that way the product will stay chewy over time.” It also helps some bakery products to stay somewhat moist over time.
Solubility is another attribute of sweeteners. “In most foods, when replacing sugar, solubility is a critical consideration for two reasons: processing and mouthfeel,” says Jaundoo.
Crystalline fructose and sucralose are more soluble than sugar. “Sugar has great solubility and it does a fine job,” Kozora says. So, if there is an issue with sugar solubility, “these will go in even a little bit better. If you’re working on an alcohol product, a lot of things aren’t soluble in alcohol, but sucralose actually is partially soluble in alcohol,” she says. Many new products in the alcoholic beverage market can use sucralose as a sweetener, due to its partial solubility in that system.
For food technologists, no matter how well a sweetener works in a system, it’s not viable unless it meets labeling expectations. Many people prefer ingredients they consider to be natural. Things like “raw” sugar, molasses, fruit juice and honey are generally accepted as “natural.” But “natural sweeteners include erythritol, sucromalt, isomaltulose and trehalose,” Longtin-Kloss notes.
“Natural is something that isn’t really defined by the FDA,” says Kozora. For example, fructose is naturally present in honey. “Consumers do have the idea that it comes from nature, and they have positive feelings about it because they know where it comes from,” she says. “We can’t really say that fructose is a natural product.” The company’s fructose is made from corn processed with mineral acids or enzymes, “so there are no synthetic or artificial ingredients that are added,” she notes. While some would consider that natural, she warns that “it is up to our customer and their legal group to determine, ultimately, if they agree that that is natural.”
According to Longtin-Kloss, sweeteners are labeled by their common and usual names, and as sugar alcohols or sugars on the nutritional fact panel. HFCS is labeled as high fructose corn syrup. Crystalline fructose is labeled as fructose. Aspartame labeling is unique, because it contains the amino acid phenyalanine, which is of concern to individuals who cannot metabolize it. The principal display panel of foods containing aspartame must have the statement: Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine.
Exploring sweetener options
“Polyols are bulk sweeteners that are produced from the corresponding sugar, by the conversion of the carbonyl group to a non-reducing alcohol group,” Jaundoo says. “Polyols exhibit thermal, chemical and bacteriological stability. As such, they can be used in most applications to replace sugar, often with minimal or no changes in processing.” For food product developers, polyols offer several advantages, including sweetness, bulking characteristics and no aftertaste. Among polyols, the range of sweetness varies. “Maltitol is the polyol that matches sugar both in taste, functionality and bulking characteristics,” he says. “As such, it is among the first choices when considering sugar replacement in foods.”
Isomaltulose is made from sucrose but has only about 40% to 50% the sweetness of sugar. It has the “same round and balanced taste profile as sugar,” says Tonja Lipp, technical sales manager, Palatinit of America, Inc., Morris Plains, NJ. (For more information on polyols, see “Polyols: Beyond Sweet Taste” on pg. 31.)
Trehalose is 40% as sweet as sugar. It is a non-reducing sugar and does not participate in Maillard browning. It is stable under low pH conditions. Inulin and oligofructose can also offer sweetness characteristics. Physiologically, they aid in moderation of glycemia and improved digestive regularity and are considered prebiotics. Joe O’Neill, executive vice president sales and marketing, Orafti Active Food Ingredients, Morris Plains, NJ, calls oligofructose a natural sugar replacer. “It is more soluble than sucrose. It does not crystallize, precipitate or leave a dry or sandy feeling in the mouth,” he says. “Certain fruit flavors are also more pronounced when used in combination with oligofructose.” He recommends using oligofructose to mask the aftertaste of artificial sweeteners.
Today’s food developer has numerous sweetener options that go well beyond sugar and honey, including myriad potential combinations. “The ultimate winners will be food consumers who can combine healthful, low- to zero-calorie properties with excellent taste, satisfying mouthfeel and an appeal to the low-carbohydrate lifestyle market,” says Longtin-Kloss. “A quality lifestyle is a priority for many consumers.”
Cindy Hazen, a 20-year veteran of the food industry, is a freelance writer based in Memphis, TN. She can be reached at email@example.com.