Worried about obesity and related health issues, some consumers are looking for more low- and no-sugar foods and beverages. In turn, manufacturers are considering various sweetener alternatives for new sugar-free options that still provide a similar flavor experience.

Interestingly enough, consumers have pilloried some of these alternatives and argued that the sweeteners actually contribute to various health crises. Meanwhile, consumers appear to have embraced other sweeteners as a natural approach to avoiding sugar.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has been at the center of the debate over artificial sweeteners. Although studies contend the ingredient may actually result in significantly more weight gain than table sugar (including a Princeton University study published in the February 26, 2010, issue of the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior), HFCS advocates maintain the human body cannot distinguish between the sweetener and sugar. Regardless, the USDA finds the per capita consumption of HFCS has been on the decline since 2003, while sugar consumption has generally been on the rise.  According to the USDA, the 2010 per capita consumption of HFCS stood at 35.08lbs per year. In 2009, per capita sugar consumption weighed in at 46.98lbs per year.

Bernadene Magnuson, professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto in Canada, discussed “Sweeteners and Sweetener Safety” at the "Managing Sweetness" symposium in South Africa in February. She cited the obesity epidemic and the rise in diabetes diagnoses as reasons why companies throughout the world have developed artificial sweeteners to replace sugar in the human diet. Magnuson also notedthat low-calorie sweeteners have certain advantages compared tovarious types of sugar: they do not affect blood glucose levels;theyare many times sweeter than sugar and, therefore, demand much smaller quantities to achieve the same sweetening effect;and theyare not well absorbed by the human body, which limits their contributions to energy or toxicity.

However, recent research out of Australia suggests sugar may be unfairly branded as a contributor to the obesity issue. Sydney University nutritionist Jennie Brand-Miller and Australian Diabetes Council research adviser Alan Barclay have written “The Australian Paradox,” to show that while obesity rates in the country continue to swell, refined sugar consumption has fallen in recent years. This research comes as the country is finalizing new dietary guidelines. Meanwhile, it directly challenges a widely held view that links sugar with obesity. Bottom line, statistics show obesity had risen three-fold while Australians’ consumption of sugar had fallen 16% in the 23 years since 1990.

Opponents contend the paradox argument relies on misinterpreted statistics, some of which are no longer collected because of unreliability. In response, Brand-Miller says such arguments fail to understand nutrition. ''This is not about commercial interests,'' she says. ''This is about a considered, expert opinion based on being a nutritionist for 35 years and having a sincere belief that sugar in moderation contributes to a safe and healthy diet.''

Nevertheless, artificial sweeteners continue to play a role in food manufacturing, though some have more appropriate applications than others. A study published in LWT--Food Science and Technology ("About the Use of Different Sweeteners in Baked Goods. Influence on the Mechanical and Rheological Properties of the Doughs") examined the effects of different sweeteners on the mechanical and rheological properties of doughs in sweet baked goods, and it found that non-calorific sweeteners had negative impacts on the texture and rheology of the products, compared to those made with sugar.

The University of Milan's Manuela Mariotti, lead researcher on the report, explained that doughs containing the sweetener sucralose showed mechanical and rheological properties "very similar to those of the dough produced with no added sugars."

The research noted the industry's "growing interest in sucrose substitutes in low-sugar products" but warned "when the sugar content is changed, food rheology and texture may be negatively affected."

It also documented thatproducts madewith alternative sweeteners tended to be "firmer, more resistant to tensile forces and less viscous than the doughs containing sucrose or fructose."

With the growing consumer interest in low-calorie products, bakery manufacturers have become increasingly interested in sucrose substitutes, including such low-calorie sweeteners as sucralose, aspartame and stevia, to name only a few. However, these applications present challenges, as their reformulations do not provide a one-for-one replacement of sugar.

Put simply, researchers believe the use of sweeteners (and high-intensity sweeteners) must factor in "the technological challenge of a complete substitution of sucrose properties: sweetening, bulking, binding, texturizing, fermenting. This is the reason why other ingredients, such as bulking agents, should be added to low-sugar baked goods to compensate sucrose functionalities complementary to sweetening."

 From the April 2, 2012, Prepared Foods’ E-dition