The Sweetening Journey – from sugar to sweetened fibres (part 1 of 6)

Taste comes at a price. That is certainly true when it comes to sugar. Not that sugar costs that much in itself; it’s a cheap ingredient. The price is paid in health. That is why less is in high demand – less sugar,preferably no sugar at all. But you can’t just remove sugar from your products. The taste will be ruined, and the mouthfeel. Not to mention all the practical problems that would arise. So what can food and beverage producers do? To find the answer we will take a sweet journey. In six articles we will look at different alternatives to regular sugar. In this first one we will look at alternative sugar types.

1 October 2020 •

Sugar. It tastes so good! And, it has several functional properties in food and beverage. However, less sugar is a hot topic, and consumers demand it. Food and beverage producers who can deliver the same taste with less sugar, or preferably no sugar at all, have a lot to gain. Most producers realise this, and almost all of them try to find the golden sugar reduced pot at the end of the rainbow.

You eat 100 ml of added sugar — every day!

We like sugar. The average Swede eats about 37 kilos of added sugar a year. That’s 100ml sugar a day!

Far too much, says the WHO, and recommends no more than 25 grams of added sugar a day. Preferably even less.

Too much sugar increases the risk of diabetes 2, overweight, metabolic syndrome, and tooth decay. It’s sad but true, and something more and more consumers become aware of. Especially after the alarming reports during the last decades.

Sugar and type 2‑diabetes

Too much sugar equals a serious risk for overweight and obesity. These are known risk factors when it comes to insulin resistance, diabetes, high blood pressure, high levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and other blood fats, as well as cardiovascular diseases.

A part of the problem is that sugar has a high glycaemic index (GI). This means that the level of glucose in your blood remains high for a period of time after intake. It is harmful to your body, which produces insulin to lower the level of blood sugar. But excess weight in combination with a sedentary lifestyle may lead to a decrease of the effect of insulin, which in turn may lead to type 2 diabetes.

This is a global problem. Calculations show that over 400 million people have type 2 diabetes. About as many have so called prediabetes. This means that they have such high blood sugar levels that it is harmful to their heart and blood vessels — but they may not be aware of it. Yet.

Critical consumers seek alternatives

Taste comes at a price. That is certainly true when it comes to sugar. Not that sugar costs that much in itself; it’s a cheap ingredient. The price, as we said above, is paid in health.

Almost all consumers are aware of the price of sugar, and no one wants to pay such a price. At the same time, hardly anyone wants to compromise on taste. And many will avoid anything that is perceived to be artificial or unnatural. These contradictory demands mean consumers have a complex relationship with sweetening.

For food and beverage producers this results in tough choices. Keep the sugar, which is perceived as natural and gives a good tasting product, but has a high price in health terms? Or decrease the sugar and risk compromising on taste? Or replace sugar with other ingredients that have the same sweetness and mouthfeel and a lower amount of calories and GI, but may perhaps be perceived as artificial?

These are no easy choices. But for those who succeed there a golden sugar reduced pot at the end of the rainbow. Together we will now explore the world of sweetening.

The sweet journey

The road to successful sugar reduction leads through a jungle of ‘monster sugars’ and dangers lurk everywhere. Together we will get through it, and along the way we shall explore all kinds of solutions — from other sugar types to sweetened fibres.

Come along! Let’s start our journey.

Sugar is a kind of carbohydrate

Sugar, starch, fibres — yes, all kinds of carbohydrates — consist of linked carbon atoms.

A base unit consists of three or more linked carbon atoms, with hydrogen and oxygen atoms connected to them (usually in the same proportion as in water). This is the explanation to why carbohydrates are called thus. They are mainly carbon and water.

One base unit is called a monosaccharide. Two connected base units are called a disaccharide. Three or more connected base units are called a polysaccharide. Polysaccharides with three to nine base units are also called an oligosaccharide.

Mono- and disaccharides are sugar types, or in short — sugar. In other words, sugar is the simplest form of carbohydrate.

Common types of sugar

Here is a short presentation of the most common types of sugar used in food and beverage.

Glucose (also called dextrose) is the most prominent product of photosynthesis and is therefore present naturally in fruit and vegetable saps. Glucose is a part of regular sugar, not to be confused with glucose syrup, which we will get back to later.

Fructose (also called levulose or sometimes fruit sugar) is naturally present in fruit, some root vegetables, cane sugar and honey. Fructose is a part of regular sugar.

Galactose is not present in free form but is a part of lactose and present in many natural products (e.g. pectin, agar-agar and other gums).

Saccharose is our everyday, regular sugar. It is present in many plants, not only in sugar beets. Saccharose is a blend of glucose and fructose. It is also what regular sugar turns into when we eat it.

Maltose (also known as malt sugar) is present in malt, that is barley or another grain that has been dampened with water and allowed to germinate. Malt sugar is formed from two units of glucose, released in digestion.

Lactose (also called milk sugar) is what makes milk taste sweet. Lactose is formed from galactose and glucose and is digested into its parts when we eat.

Common sugar types and their sweetness relative to regular sugar, glycaemic index (GI), with white bread as a reference, and energy content.
Types of sugar Sweetness GI Energy
Glucose 60–70 % 138 4 kcal/​g
Fructose 80–170 % 23 4 kcal/​g
Saccharose 100 % 92 4 kcal/​g
Maltose 40–50 % 150 4 kcal/​g
Lactose 20–40 % 65 4 kcal/​g

The function of sugar in your body

Practically everything we eat contains sugar in one form or another. Some are naturally present, some are added. But what actually happens when the sugar enters your body?

Disaccharides are digested by enzymes in the small intestine to become monosaccharides. In the same way maltose turns into two glucose molecules.

Monosaccharides (including those who are formed when disaccharides are degraded) are absorbed in the small intestine. What happens next varies according to which type of sugar and your body’s need. The most interesting processes are those that happen to glucose and fructose.

Glucose is used throughout your body

Glucose is absorbed in the small intestine and enters the blood stream, where the blood sugar level then increases. At the same time the pancreas makes insulin that signals to the cells in your body to absorb the glucose. This is necessary to prevent a too high level of blood sugar when you have eaten. What happens with the glucose after this depends on each cell’s need of energy and the presence of other nutrients.

Cells use glucose foremost as fuel. The body will always use glucose before fat and protein.

Excess glucose turns into the starch glycogen, which when there is not enough glucose turns back into glucose. Muscle cells store glycogen for their own needs, and the liver stores glucose for the rest of the body.

Glycogen is the main energy reserve of the body, and is used before fat tissue turns into energy. But the ability to store glycogen is limited. About half a kilo can be stored this way.

When the store of glycogen is full, glucose can be turned into fat. But only in very small amounts — at the most a few grams per day — and it only happens if your diet is extremely low in fat.

In other words the body will only use as much glucose as it needs to keep its cells going and the little storage depot filled. The rest leaves the body in the urine.

Fructose goes for the liver

Fructose makes a completely different journey to glucose. It is the liver alone that handles fructose. It is transformed here into fatty acids which are stored in the liver and in fat cells. And it happens whether it’s needed or not.

The liver can convert fructose to glucose. But this only happens when the liver cells lack glucose, and that rarely happens. In modern society we seldom lack energy, and we get glucose at the same time as fructose (e.g. through regular sugar).

So, this generally means that fructose leads to an unregulated manufacturing of fat.

To make matters worse, fructose does not stave our hunger. On the contrary, our appetite increases.

Not much gained

When you read about glucose and fructose you might be led to believe that glucose is better than fructose when it comes to replacing regular sugar. The body regulates intake and storage of energy from glucose but not from fructose. It is, however, not that simple.

When regular sugar is replaced with glucose the blood sugar levels run off and the GI increases by 50 per cent. Pure glucose has a super high GI. Only maltose is worse.

Fructose on the other hand, has a low GI. Only a fourth of regular sugar. This is because of the liver, which instead converts fructose to fat. A small comfort is that fructose may taste sweeter than sugar and can thus be used in smaller amounts.

When it comes to energy and tooth decay there is no point switching from regular sugar. All types of sugar have 4 kcal per gram. And the bacteria that cause tooth decay like them all just the same.

So what is the conclusion? If we are going to help the consumers, to reduce the calories, keep the blood sugar levels more stable and avoid tooth decay, we need to look further.

In our next article we’ll continue our sweetening journey. Then we’ll look closer at maltitol, erythritol and other polyols.

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