What can fill the void of sugar?

Sugar is an amazing ingredient that not only adds sweetness. It also provides volume and bulk to your food. When you reduce sugar, a high-intensity sweetener can replace the sweetness. But what can replace the bulk?

26 June 2020 •

Let’s start with a con­tro­ver­sial state­ment: Sugar is an amaz­ing ingre­di­ent. Not only does it add sweet­ness. It has lots of prop­er­ties that can be use­ful in dif­fer­ent con­texts. But above all, sug­ar pro­vides bulk. The bulk affects our din­ing expe­ri­ence and mouth­feel and is at least as impor­tant as the sweet­ness. But as we know, we should reduce sug­ar. We can replace the sweet­ness with a high-inten­si­ty sweet­en­er such as ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides. But what can replace the bulk prop­er­ties of sugar?

The problem

High-inten­si­ty sweet­en­ers are just that: intense­ly sweet. Steviol gly­co­sides, which are extract­ed from the leaves of the plant ste­via, are 300 times sweet­er than sug­ar. Just a lit­tle more than three grams of ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides is need­ed to replace the sweet­ness from a full kilo­gram of sug­ar. And there­in lies the prob­lem. What should the oth­er 997 grams be replaced with?

Bulk sweeteners

One solu­tion is to replace sug­ar with a sweet­en­er that pro­vides bulk. Some of them are less sweet than sug­ar and need the sup­port of a high-inten­si­ty sweet­en­er, while oth­ers are about as sweet as sugar.

But all com­mon bulk sweet­en­ers – glu­cose syrup, glu­cose-fruc­tose syrup, isoglu­cose and invert sug­ar – con­tain at least as many calo­ries and have as much, if not greater, effect on blood sug­ar lev­els than sug­ar. So this solu­tion is out of the question.

Replace sugar with fat?

Fat can pro­vide vol­ume in food. And it’s also a source of good taste and mouthfeel.

But of course, fat is also out of the ques­tion. More fat equals more calo­ries and the whole point of sug­ar reduc­tion is to reduce the num­ber of calories.

What about thickeners?

What about thick­en­ers, sta­bi­liz­ers and gelling agents? Are they of any use?

Thickeners and the like can be dis­solved or atom­ized in water to obtain a vis­cous solu­tion or gel. Take locust bean gum for exam­ple. It swells eight times in water. Perfect for mak­ing thin-liq­uid prod­ucts, such as ketchup, more viscous.

But if you replace the bulk that sug­ar pro­vides with a thick­en­ing agent, you will end up with a sticky and dis­as­trous mouth­feel.

Sugar alcohols and dietary fibres

What oth­er alter­na­tives are there? Sugar alco­hols and dietary fibres of course!

Sugar alco­hols come in dif­fer­ent forms and they all have their advan­tages and draw­backs. They are rel­a­tive­ly low in calo­ries at 2.4 kcal per gram (ery­thri­tol has 0 kcal /​ g) and most have mod­est effects on blood sug­ar lev­els. In addi­tion to prop­er bulk prop­er­ties, they also pro­vide some sweet­ness – rang­ing from 50 to 90 per cent com­pared to the sweet­ness of sugar.

Then we have dif­fer­ent sorts of fibres. They also come in dif­fer­ent forms with dif­fer­ent strengths and weak­ness­es. Fibres also pro­vide bulk and some fibres also have some sweet­ness. Just like sug­ar alco­hols, fibres are rel­a­tive­ly low in calories.

Let’s take a clos­er look at some of the sug­ar alco­hols and fibres used in the food industry.

Useful Sugar Alcohols

There are some sug­ar alco­hols to choose from, but some of the most use­ful are ery­thri­tol, malti­tol and sorbitol.

Erythritol is dis­tin­guished by not pro­vid­ing any calo­ries at all. It also has no effect on blood sug­ar lev­els; the glycemic index GI is 0 (sug­ar has 92). The sweet­ness is mod­er­ate (60–70 per cent of the sweet­ness in sug­ar) and ery­thri­tol has a cool­ing effect in the mouth which is not always desir­able. Erythritol fits well in chew­ing gum, ice cream and yoghurt where the cool­ing effect is not felt or may even be desirable.

Maltitol has a sweet­ness between 80 and 90 per cent of the sweet­ness found in sug­ar. It is among the best in that regard. The GI val­ue of 49 is how­ev­er among the worst. On the oth­er hand, malti­tol has no cool­ing effect in the mouth, unlike most sug­ar alco­hols. Maltitol fits well in ice cream, but also in choco­late prod­ucts, thanks to its high melt­ing point which pre­vents the choco­late from clumping.

Sorbitol is one of the cheap­er sug­ar alco­hols and the sweet­ness is not very impres­sive (50–60 per cent of sug­ar). However, sor­bitol is hygro­scop­ic which means that it can absorb and retain mois­ture from the envi­ron­ment. In this way, your food will have a long shelf life and will not dry out. Sorbitol fits well in sauces, ice cream, jams and chew­ing gum.

Which sug­ar alco­hol is best? There is no clear answer to that ques­tion. It depends on what you are going to use it for.

Appropriate fibres

There are many con­ceiv­able fibres, but these four are more suit­able than others:

Isomaltooligosaccharides (IMO) is a dietary fibre derived from the cas­sa­va root. IMO can with­stand heat and pro­vide that brown hue (Maillard reac­tion) that we like to see on pas­tries. Therefore, IMO is well suit­ed for bak­ing, but also for cere­als, cakes, bis­cuits and var­i­ous forms of juices and beverages.

Polydextrose is anoth­er good fibre. It’s a sta­ble ingre­di­ent that can with­stand heat, acidic envi­ron­ments and enables prod­ucts with a long shelf life. Polydextrose fits well in a vari­ety of foods; every­thing from sweets and pas­tries to dress­ings, mar­malades and dairy prod­ucts. In addi­tion, poly­dex­trose is rel­a­tive­ly gen­tle to the stom­ach, unlike oth­er fibres.

Dextrin is a sta­ble fibre that can with­stand heat and is resis­tant to high as well as low pH val­ues. Dextrin pro­vides low vis­cos­i­ty which can be a pos­i­tive thing if you want bulk but don’t want your prod­uct to be vis­cous. Dextrin is a good fit for pas­tries and dairy prod­ucts, but often needs the com­pa­ny of oth­er fibres.

Inulin is a ver­sa­tile fibre that is good at mask­ing the off-tastes that can be found in ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides. However, inulin does not tol­er­ate low pH val­ues; then inulin is bro­ken down to fruc­tose. Inulin fits well in dairy prod­ucts, fruit prepa­ra­tions and chocolates.

Compared to sug­ar alco­hols, fibres have an ace up its sleeve. Consumers have a favourable atti­tude towards fibres. They gen­er­al­ly regard it as some­thing pos­i­tive and healthy. So if you replace the bulk of the sug­ar with fibres, you are at the same time able to mar­ket the food as fibre-enriched. Not bad!

Not without drawbacks

Sugar alco­hols and fibres are indis­pens­able ingre­di­ents in reduc­ing sug­ar. But they are not with­out prob­lems. Both ingre­di­ents will upset your stom­ach if you con­sume exces­sive­ly. This is part­ly due to the fact that they bind flu­id in the large intes­tine, which in case of exces­sive con­sump­tion leads to upset­ting the stom­ach, and part­ly that they are a treat for the ben­e­fi­cial bac­te­ria of the large intes­tine, which in the case of exces­sive con­sump­tion leads to flatulence.

Add to this that you must dis­close the lax­a­tive effect if your prod­uct con­tains more than ten per cent sug­ar alco­hol. That sort of labelling may not be over­ly thrilling to have on your products.

Therefore, in prod­ucts with a lot of sug­ar, it may be inap­pro­pri­ate to replace the entire lost bulk with sug­ar alco­hols and fibres.

The solution

For some appli­ca­tions, we have to accept that sug­ar can­not be replaced entire­ly. And that may not even be the pur­pose. The pur­pose of sug­ar reduc­tion is to reduce the amount of added sug­ar – for health ben­e­fits. Not nec­es­sar­i­ly to com­plete­ly replace sug­ar. And with the right com­bi­na­tion of sug­ar alco­hol, fibres and a high-inten­si­ty sweet­en­er, large amounts of sug­ar can be replaced with­out affect­ing taste or texture.

Not a simple task

It’s not easy to choose the right com­bi­na­tion of sug­ar alco­hol, fibre and high-inten­si­ty sweet­en­er. You need to get the right pro­por­tions and know how much sug­ar is appro­pri­ate to reduce in this way. There are many aspects to consider.

If you are going to make a full-bod­ied cake that does not dry out, you’ll need a hygro­scop­ic sug­ar alco­hol like sor­bitol. But sor­bitol is the sug­ar alco­hol that is worst for the stom­ach, so you have to be extra care­ful about the dosage and keep in mind that too much fibre can make the sit­u­a­tion worse. At the same time, you need poly­dex­trose to get that love­ly brown surface.

If you’re a choco­late pro­duc­er, malti­tol can come in handy, thanks to its high melt­ing point. To keep the sweet­ness, you prefer­ably add ste­via extract. But it has a liquorice-like off-taste that needs to be masked. You can do that with inulin which also pro­vides bulk.

These are just two exam­ples. We could keep on going. The point is that it takes both spe­cial­ist knowl­edge and long expe­ri­ence to suc­ceed (unless you want to run the tri­al and error method for­ev­er). If you lack this exper­tise we can help you.

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