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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