WITH SUGAR UNDER ATTACK IN THE MEDIA, SOME COMPANIES ARE LOOKING AT SUGAR REDUCTION STRATEGIES. IT MIGHT BE EASIER SAID THAN DONE
Text by Nicolas Heffernan
First it was fat; then came salt; now sugar is in the crosshairs.
Sugar has been under increasing attack in the media with reports comparing the overconsumption of the sweetener to cocaine addiction and having similar risks to tobacco and alcohol abuse. All the attention sugar has been getting seems to be having a trickledown effect to consumers. A survey in February indicates that 67 per cent of Canadians want to lead a healthier lifestyle in 2014 and 39 per cent plan to reduce their sugar intake. A Wall Street Journal and NBC poll asked consumers their opinion on the most harmful of four substances. Tobacco (49 per cent) and alcohol (24 per cent) came in first and second place, followed by sugar (15 per cent) and marijuana. Meanwhile a survey by British company OnePoll found 65 per cent of people think that added sugar is one of the main contributors to the rise in UK obesity, with 10 per cent believing sugar to be the main contributor.
“It’s just an easy target because people are focussing more and more on the nutritional effect of what they’re buying,” says Luke Haffenden, Chief Flavourist at Novotaste Corp, a Montreal flavour house which strives to fill a healthy niche in the market. “They’re reading labels more and more and they’re starting to realize, ‘hey, why is sugar the second ingredient or third ingredient in the food that I’m eating?’ And sometimes products have four or five different kinds of sugars.”
While the mainstream media is predominantly reporting on research condemning sugar, there is a lot of science that isn’t so quick to blame sugar. The processed food industry is taking a large portion of the blame for the amount of added sugar in food but amid all the confusion there seems to be consumer desire for sugar-reduced products. While the sugar industry tries to combat consumer perceptions around the health risks of sugar, some companies are getting ahead of the curve and looking into sugar reduction strategies. “Similar to what happened with salt about three or four years ago,” says Haffenden. “You have the companies that are ahead of the curve that want to make products that are healthier, more appealing, sexier and nutritional, however, the industry is lagging.”
The problem is: reduction might be easier said than done.
Whose science is right?
According to Statistics Canada, the average Canadian consumes 26 teaspoons of sugar per day, which works out to 40 kilograms per year or 20 bags. Neither the Canadian or U.S. governments have a recommended daily limit for sugar consumption but the American Heart Association recommends men consume no more than nine teaspoons a day, while women have a maximum of six teaspoons.
Not all sugar is bad, though. Concern centres on refined sugar like high-fructose corn syrup and regular table sugar which has been stripped of any nutritional value. Mainstream natural sweeteners include: Thaumatin, a protein extracted from the West African katemfe fruit; Monk Fruit, from China; agave; nectars; cane sugars; and beet sugar.
In light of the evolution of the science on sugar, which now more strongly than ever links sugar to obesity, heart disease, tooth decay and diabetes, the World Health Organization released new consumption guidelines. In March, the WHO called for sugar consumption to be reduced to five per cent of daily calories as the best way to achieve “additional health benefits.” The agency also renewed its call for governments around the world to recommend a firm limit of no more than 10 per cent of calories per day from sugar.
Despite concerns from health authorities, the sugar industry maintains the sweet stuff is being made a scapegoat. “The media is promoting a lot of misinformation around sugar but it’s hard to say whether the public is changing their attitude. But there seems to be an interest in targeting sugar even though the science isn’t supporting that,” says Sandra Marsden, President of the Canadian Sugar Institute, the association representing Canadian sugar manufacturers. Marsden points out that most of the diseases attributed to sugar are complex and cannot be attributed solely to one cause. “The problem is obesity is a big issue so people are looking for simple solutions and there isn’t a simple solution,” she says. “If people are going to divert their attention to sugar it’s not going to help address the problem.”
The Canadian sugar industry produces more than 1.2 million tonnes of refined sugar annually with a value of shipments of over $1 billion dollars. But industry growth has stagnated because per capita sugar table sugar consumption in Canada has not increased since the early 1940s and export markets are extremely limited because of foreign trade barriers. “The market isn’t growing domestically except for population growth,” says Marsden. “The biggest impact on the market has been some relocation of food processing out of Canada. It means our companies shipped less domestically for companies that would be exporting to the U.S.”
In light of the evolution of the science on sugar, which now more strongly than ever links sugar to obesity, heart disease, tooth decay and diabetes, the World Health Organization released new consumption guidelines.
With over 85 per cent of Canada’s refined sugar being sold to the food industry and with about half of that exported in food products sold to the U.S. and other foreign markets, the sugar industry isn’t worried about processors reducing sugar in formulations. “Canadian manufactures will continue to supply sugar for Canadian foods as we have since the industry was established in the 1800s,” says Marsden. “The industry is not going to react in any way other than encourage us to continue to communicate the science around sugar. It’s a very big challenge when there’s so much misinformation being propagated.”
As the sugar industry tries to fight the waves of research castigating sugar, more and more food processors are enquiring about sugar reduction strategies from companies like Novotaste. The company has been offering sugar reduction strategies for years, when businesses were looking at cutting sugar to save money. “In many cases, sugar is one of the biggest costs in a formulation,” says Haffenden. “Over the last five years, probably 50 per cent of the time people come to us because they want to lower the cost of their formulations. Now, more and more companies are coming back to us and just want to make their products healthier and it’s not presented to us as a cost-savings project.”
A confluence of factors has allowed sugar reduction strategies to become a viable option. “It’s becoming easier and easier,” says Haffenden. “If you went back 10 years ago, I wouldn’t use the word impossible but it was a lot more difficult to do what we’re doing right now. Technologies are changing and consumers are demanding more from food companies and processed foods.”
It’s not an easy decision for a company to reformulate a money-maker. “There’s often a risk because when you’re modifying a formula that’s bringing in let’s say $1 million, you don’t want to start playing around with what’s bringing you money, so often our clients will be cautious,” says Haffenden. Over the years, Novotaste has found the most efficient strategies involve close collaboration with clients. “Our clients know their products, we know our flavour,” says Haffenden. “We bring both R&D labs together; at the end of the day, that is the most efficient way to reduce sugar or any other ingredient.”
While technology has made the job easier, the process of reformulating a product is complicated. Reducing or replacing sugar is not a simple like for like replacement because sugar is so much more than just a sweetener. Sugar is also a flavour enhancer, stimulating the sensory experience of foods and beverages. “Remove sugar and you’re basically removing a lot of the flavour, the texture, and you’re taking away from the overall experience,” says Haffenden.
Along with salt and fat, sugar also serves numerous purposes as a functional ingredient. For example, sugar acts as a preservative, extending the shelf life of a product. “A perfect example is jam,” says Haffenden. “Remove the sugar out of jam without processing it completely and the thing is going to go bad after about a month.”
The functionality means the time it takes to reformulate a recipe depends on the product. A beverage project can be done in a matter of days or weeks because the main functional concern revolves around taste and mouth feel. But a baking application can easily take two years because sugar does so much in a recipe. Sugar acts as a binding or bulking agent, retains moisture, acts as a preservative and can be involved in the browning process. “The clearest thing I can tell you is the more natural a product is the longer it will take,” says Haffenden. “Now if you’re talking about a Twinkie or any of these radioactive processed desserts I don’t think it would take as long because they’re filled with preservatives and all sorts of kinds of funky compounds.”
Sugar alternatives do not offer cut and dry solutions. Companies are looking to all-natural solutions, avoiding artificial sweeteners like sucralose, which works very well. But natural sweeteners have pros and cons. For example, some sugar alcohols can cause intestinal discomfort as was the case when German confectioner Haribo, tried to replace sugar with the alcohol, maltitol, in its gummy bears, says Haffenden.
Along with salt and fat, sugar also serves numerous purposes as a functional ingredient. For example, sugar acts as a preservative, extending the shelf life of a product.
That’s why companies should beware of the ingredient on the tradeshow floor that offers the magic bullet solution. “That’s why Novotaste is involved in sugar reduction strategies,” says Haffenden, “because while some of these sugar replacers have certain advantages you can’t simply just use one. You often have to use a combination of different sugar alternatives and at the same time reformulate the favours in the products; formulate a solution that is synergistic so the flavour works with the sugar replacers.”
Despite the issues Haribo had with maltitol, sugar alcohols like erythritol can be very effective. Other sweeteners can be used depending on the formulation or the other functionalities the sweetener possesses. “There’s all sort of interesting ingredients that are being discovered,” says Haffenden. “It’s a little bit like the pharma industry 20 or 30 years ago; most of their formulations were inspired by what was found in nature and right now the same thing is going on in food.”
The sweetener with the most buzz right now is stevia, which was approved by Health Canada in November 2012. As with all the other ingredients, there are pros and cons to the plant with up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar. “For certain applications it is effective, however, it’s extremely expensive,” Haffenden says. “It has a tendency to leave an aftertaste, it activates the taste buds, and it sometimes numbs the palette. There’s all this excitement around stevia but it’s no magic bullet.”
For example, stevia cannot be used to completely replace the sugar in a baking application. “The main problem is it’s so potent that if you remove 30 per cent of the sugar, great, but the volume of your cake is going to be reduced by 30 per cent so you need a bulking agent.”
Stevia has gathered momentum as industry giants like Cargill have brought the plant mainstream through brands like Truvia. Truvia has been successful by positioning itself as zero-calorie, natural sweetener. While sales for artificial sweeteners like Splenda have dropped, Truvia’s sales have nearly tripled since 2008. “The marketing of Truvia hasn’t been difficult because in our eyes it’s all about choice and as consumers are looking for a zero-calorie option we have Truvia,” says Colleen May, Vice President, Food Segment Lead, Cargill Corn Milling. “Whereas, if consumers are looking for sugar, that’s a different marketplace. It is two different segments.”
Truvia originally made great progress as a tabletop sweetener for consumers but food processors are increasingly interested in the product. “A number of food companies are working it into their formulations and it’s been applied for customers that make various things from beverages all the way to yogurt,” says May. “That continues to grow just like our tabletop business.”
Truvia’s packet sweeteners for consumers generate more than $100 million annually in sales but May thinks it has untapped potential for value-added applications. “As the scientists and formulators and application scientists are working and continuing to deliver ingredient formulations that allow you to have caloric reductions along with greater taste profiles, we’ll see even more applications for it, just as we’ve seen over the last number of years.”
Taste reigns supreme
While Haffenden believes stevia can be an effective replacement when used as part of a strategy, it’s still not an absolute answer. “They’ve been pushing stevia hard because many of the big boys in the industry have gotten into the whole stevia market, realizing that people want more natural kinds of products,” says Haffenden.
Despite all the concern around health and nutrition, the most important factor that comes into play still hasn’t changed. “A person will eat a product because of how it tastes,” says Haffenden. “If it has the greatest nutritionals and has the most beautiful packaging, you might get away with a slightly off taste but at the end of the day, if it doesn’t provide the consumer that full multisensory experience where you have a great taste and the evolution of flavour in the mouth, consumers will not buy it.”