Formulating for Clean-Label Sweetness, Naturally
The most appropriate sweetener for a given formulation should be what best accomplishes desired goals
Sugar remains the most widely used sweetener in food and beverage production. It is more affordable than sugar substitutes, has the broadest flavor appeal of all sweeteners, and has functionality beyond merely sweetening. It provides bulk and structure, and can even contribute to shelflife and food safety. Yet sugar—and by proxy, other nutritive sweeteners—have ended up as victims of a blanket condemnation of calories, especially so-called “empty” ones.
Ironically, it was the trend toward healthier foods and the inclusive drive toward “natural” ingredients that began a sort of redemption of sugar and other nutritive sweeteners. Starting with such ingredients as agave syrup, maple syrup, honey, and rice syrup, the sweetness from these various combinations of predominantly glucose and fructose delivered the cachet of naturalness—all for the same 4 kcals/gram.
In recent years, even as sucrose has continued to score at the top of consumers’ professed ingredient concerns, nutritive sweeteners and even plain sucrose have shed many of their unwarranted negative connotations to reassert their class as sweeteners of choice for a spectrum of food and beverage formulations.
In a world where sugar and other sweeteners are heavily scrutinized, even when the application is primarily driven by functionality and flavor balance and not necessarily by sweetness, the most appropriate sweetener for a given formulation should be what best accomplishes its goals.
Sugar or syrup in some form is indispensable in rubs, brines, cures, BBQ sauce, fermented foods, and virtually all baked goods. It tempers and balances all the senses in both sweet and savory applications.
On another front, a new world of natural sweetness opened up with plant-derived high-intensity sweeteners (HIS). When processed and refined extracts of stevia and monkfruit hit the market a little more than a decade ago, they enjoyed rapid popularity based on their status as plant-derived natural sweeteners. Delivering an effective zero calories, they changed the HIS paradigm, offering a choice that seemed to be the best of both worlds: flavor and performance.
All sweeteners—natural or lab-made, zero-calorie or caloric—are described according to how close they taste to sucrose. The sweetness we have evolved to prefer is the one closest to what is found in nature, especially in ripe fruit. While sucrose is a 50-50 disaccharide of glucose and fructose, most fruits vary only about 10-20% from that. Even then, the individual flavor profiles of glucose and fructose are, as one would expect, close to the two combined.
However, subtleties in flavor and performance set the nutritive sweeteners apart as more than just something sweet. This is especially true of sucrose. While honey and syrups provide bolder flavors with prominent characteristics, nuances in flavors of “plain” sugar differ around the world, and from brand to brand of the same sugar. So, too, does the micronutrient content. These qualities depend on where the plants from which sugar is made are grown and how the product is refined.
Grassy, earthy, fermented, caramelized, metallic, and woody hints can be perceived in virtually every type of sugar. These attributes can help elevate the roles sugar and other natural caloric sweeteners play in formulation above and beyond being regarded as a price-sensitive commodity ingredient.
Brick and mortar retail shelves and e-commerce channels have both experienced growth in the number of sweeteners claiming to be “raw”, “100% unprocessed”, “unrefined”, “whole cane”, and, even “herbally purified”. One company describes its sweetener as “pure evaporated cane syrup powder.”
It should be noted, however, that the term, “evaporated cane juice”—which became popular for many companies to use on ingredient statements—is on its way out. In May 2016, the FDA issued guidance that discouraged the use of the term, noting that “evaporated cane juice” is not the common or usual name of any type of sweetener. (See “Evaporated What?” page 66.)
Variability in crystal size, moisture, nutritive content, and residual ash from one batch of sugar to another results from differences in refining processes. The use of bone char for de-colorizing and de-ashing in some cane sugar production restricts their white sugars and mingled brown sugars from being vegan. (No organic sugars are exposed to bone char, since these types of sugars are restricted from being de-colorized.)
Sugar crystals are available in a comprehensive range, with sizing based on the percentage of crystals intentionally processed to be retained on a given size mesh screen. Different sugar refineries have variability in their mesh screen sizing, contributing to variability in sugars marketed with the same name. Common sizes used in food and beverage processing include sanding sugar (mesh 20-40), fruit sugar and bottler’s sugar (mesh 40-100), and baker’s sugar (mesh 50-140).
Finer crystal size and greater surface area relative to weight increases the tendency for sugar to compact or compress and absorb moisture, adding challenges to shipping and storage. Confectioners’ sugars typically have cornstarch or other anti-caking ingredients added to them but still generally have a shorter shelf life than other types of sugar.
Raw sugars generally have a coarse crystal size and are considered minimally processed and thus, more natural. Large turbinado and even larger demerara sugar crystals that resist dissolving in cold solution add crunch, contrast, and fun to the bitterness of an iced dark-roast coffee or the tartness of a hibiscus tea and are a perfect replacement for traditional sanding sugars for topping muffins, cookies, or scones.
There is one recently explored advantage to smaller-sized sweetener crystals that could give them a health benefit. In 2016, Nestlé S.A. was granted a patent for its microcrystalline sugar. Sucrose is restructured to be smaller and rounder, giving it increased surface area.
While the smaller size and greater surface area raise solubility and shorten dissolving time, those characteristics also increase the contact with taste receptors in the tongue and palate, enhancing the perception of sweetness. This means it takes less sweetener to deliver more flavor. In trials, formulations demonstrated an ability to reduce sugar use by up to 40% without significant alteration of flavor or perceived sweetness.
A Taste of Honey
From a formulator’s perspective, the natural place to start a conversation about honey is sweetness. As with sucrose, honey is composed primarily of fructose and glucose. Unlike sucrose, honey also contains minimal levels of other monosaccharides, such as galactose; disaccharides, such as maltose; and oligosaccharides, such as erlose.
These individual sugar components account for about 69% of the composition of honey. The other significant component of honey is water, which comes in at around 17% of its content. The remaining 14%, in addition to the aforementioned other sugars, is made up of enzymes, amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
On average, honey is 1 to 1.5 times sweeter (on a dry weight basis) than sucrose. The key to honey’s sweetness is its higher fructose-to-glucose ratio. Fructose has about one and a half times the sweetness power of sucrose. It also has a quicker onset and peak of sweetness, although it diminishes more rapidly. When using honey, formulators generally can use less of the ingredient than sugar to attain the same desired sweetness.
As an all-natural sweetener, honey’s composition varies based on the floral source of the nectar the honey bee gathers, the season, and the method of processing. In the US alone, there are more than 300 varietals of honey, each with a unique flavor profile and sweetness. Formulators can attain both a desired sweetness and usage level by formulating with different varietals of honey.
Honey mustard dressings, honey dipping sauces, honey garlic glazes, and honey-based BBQ sauces continue to be popular.
On the boozy side, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey Whiskey, Wild Turkey American Honey, and Jim Beam Honey Bourbon Whiskey appeal to those imbibers desiring a smoother finish to their libation.
Honey’s unique compositional blend gives it functional advantages rarely found in other sweeteners. With a pH of around 3.9, its acidity can enhance flavors, inhibit mold and bacteria growth, and extend the shelflife of products.
The amino acids that give honey its low pH also contribute to honey’s antimicrobial capacity. In fact, honey has been used as a preservative for thousands of years.
Brown sugars made from sugar beets are always made from refined beet sugar with cane molasses mingled with the crystals. Cane sugar-based brown sugars—referred to as “boiled brown sugars”—can be produced so the molasses inherent to the crystal is retained in the crystal during the refining process.
Brown sugars can be characterized in sensory evaluation by their degree of “caramel,” “butterscotch,” or molasses notes, with some notes being stronger, more earthy, or even more “tangy” than others. “Earthy” is a note particularly common in some coconut and palm sugars, as well as panela and other sugars increasingly being marketed as “whole cane sugar.” Panela is experiencing slow but increasing interest as a natural sugar.
Traditional in Latin America, panela (also called “piloncillo”) is minimally processed sugar cane juice that is then pressed into hard cones, pucks, or blocks. Customarily, they are sold in firm 8 oz. or 16 oz. shapes that are shaved or grated at the table. Panela has the potential for more widespread and industrial use as a mainstream natural brown sugar for baking applications when granulated.
Muscovado or Barbados brown sugar, available in light and dark varieties, features intense molasses flavors beyond a traditional soft light or dark brown. These are excellent choices for sauces, such as BBQ sauces. It should be noted that the higher the moisture content of any brown sugar, the more likely the sugar is to clump or harden or pack.
The primal nature of sweet cravings has inspired each culture to seek out native sources of sweetness. Riding on the global food trend are a number of sweeteners from different cultures that today’s formulators are putting to work.
Crystals, powders, and syrups have been extracted from sources ranging from coconuts and dates to potatoes and carrots. Even almond husks have been shown to be a source of accessible sugar. Of these, coconut and date sugars have recently experienced a jump in popularity.
Coconut sugar is a type of palm sugar made from the sap of the flowers cut from coconut palm. Coconut sugar has benefitted from the health halo that coconut oil and coconut water have achieved. Its flavor notes resemble “earthy” brown sugar more than coconut, although hints of the latter do come through in some forms.
Coconut sugar is common in Filipino recipes, and palm sugars are featured in many Southeast Asian specialties. Gula melaka, also sometimes called “jaggery” in India or nam tan pip in Thailand, is a darker, caramel-rich palm sugar mostly associated with Malaysian desserts. In India, it is used not only for cooking but for medicinal purposes as well.
Date sugar, long popular in the Middle East, is also gaining a following in the West of late. Dark and earthy sweet, it is similar to brown sugar in flavor and humectance. More refined date sugars and coconut sugars are available, lighter in color and subtler in flavor as well.
Buzzwords such as “artisanal,” “fair trade,” “organic,” and “healthier” are all associated with these sugars though it is questionable whether they are “healthy,” much less “healthier than” other types of sugars. However, the less refined versions can contain higher amounts of minerals and other trace nutrients.
Back to the Roots
Numerous other sweetening options offer manufacturers ways to appeal to seekers of natural sweetening solutions. Sweet potato-based syrups, juice concentrates, and dehydrated ingredients are among several functional options available—all sourced from the nutrient-dense tuber.
Fig syrup has been used in Mediterranean cuisine for centuries, and fruit sweeteners derived from prunes and raisins are attracting attention from formulators for a number of reasons.
Pastes from these fruits got a bump in popularity when it was discovered that not only are they excellent natural sweeteners, but they can be used to replace some of the fat in certain formulations. But more recently, their positioning on food labels gave them a boost.
“Sweetening products with fruits and fruit derivatives makes good sense.” says James Painter, PhD, RDN, a professor at Eastern Illinois University and adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Houston. “Raisin paste is among a number of fruit-based sweetening options that are considered intrinsic sugars and not added sugar when it comes to labeling.”
The FDA agrees, having determined that fruit-based sweeteners that maintain the original components of the fruit do not have to be labeled as a sugar. “Fruit also has nutrients, phytonutrients, and fiber that modify the way our body metabolizes the sugar,” adds Painter. “The body uses sugar much better when it’s in the complex matrix of the fruit, whether as syrup or paste.”
Syrup Trends Up
Golden syrup, also known as light treacle, is a favorite baking syrup in the UK and makes a beautiful pecan pie. It also can replace honey in baklava and provides a silky texture to torrone, among its many uses.
Black treacle is the more exotic-sounding British equivalent of molasses. Molasses can have varying degrees of color, as well as smooth versus bitter notes, with blackstrap molasses being the strongest flavored and darkest. Refiners’ syrups also contribute varying amounts of molasses and other distinctive brown notes.
Grains can be a rich source of sweeteners. It makes sense when you think of the long history of using sweet malted barley and wheat syrups. Today, the syrups themselves, as well as powdered versions of malt syrups, are enjoying wide usage in food and beverage formulations. They are available in a full range of colors, with the darker malt syrups able to pull double duty as a natural colorant and sweetener.
Newer to the scene is oat syrup, but syrup from sorghum, long popular in the American South, also is becoming more universally popular, especially in light of the gluten-free trend. That same trend has led to a revival for rice syrup. A favorite several decades ago, more processors are turning to it as a healthful, hypoallergenic sweetener with a light flavor that lends itself to a broad range of formulations.
Many common syrups present with a spectrum of brix and invert considerations, as well as having unique flavors that range from the relatively low flavor of corn syrup to agave, molasses, and maple syrup, which have higher flavor and color profiles.
Total invert syrups at about 90% invert are used the least in manufacturing but are important for retarding crystallization in certain food products. Honey, rice syrups, and tapioca syrup sit in the highest brix range of all syrups, making them popular as binding syrups. In addition, the level of dextrose equivalents (DE) affects sweetness intensity and level of water activity.
Corn syrup, which can range from high-glucose to high-fructose syrup, faces challenges on labels from consumers influenced by the unwarranted negative publicity received by high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It has been well-reported that the “high-fructose” nomenclature is a misnomer in that the term relates to its comparison with pure glucose, yet consumer perceptions are slow to change.
Chemically, the composition of HFCS is nearly identical to sucrose, most commonly ranging from about 52-55% fructose and 45-48% glucose. Moreover, its role in controlling graininess and adding body or chewiness to candy, as well as providing an economical solution and longer shelflife over other syrups, presents replacement challenges in certain applications.
While many consumers are still wary of HFCS, in some cases food manufacturers have other reasons for reformulating. Ann Hickey, founder and owner of Plush Puffs Hand-Crafted Marshmallows LLC, notes that while originally seeking an alternative to HFCS to meet consumer demand, the company’s preference for brown rice syrup and cane sugar was “more important to achieve a cleaner, higher quality flavor profile” and to “entice consumers into trying homemade marshmallows.”
Fully nutritive sugars and other sweeteners are generally preferred for their clean flavor, with no off notes, bitterness, metallic taste, or lingering sweetness. And unlike many polyols (sugar alcohols), they raise no digestive concerns. Moreover, the association between all-nutritive options and health concerns ranging from obesity to diabetes and CVD continues to fuel the desire for more and better non-nutritive alternatives.
Stevia and monkfruit, both around 150-250 times as sweet as sugar, continue to lead the charge in the high-intensity sweetener race, with stevia still the more common of the two. Stevia has undergone significant flavor evolution and refinement over the dozen or so years since it hit the market.
With flavor assistance and blending from nutritive sugars and polyols, a new generation of lower sugar options with fewer metallic, “licorice”, or bitter notes or prolonged objectionable linger, are entering the sweet stream.
The current “next-gen” stevia sweetener systems are taking advantage of the varying profiles of the active chemical components in the stevia plant. These glycosides, primarily steviosides and especially rebaudioside, number a dozen or more. At first, rebaudioside-A was the workhorse of the stevia world. However, today’s systems employ two or three different rebaudiosides, creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Blends such as of rebaudiosides A and M, rebaudiosides A and D, or even rebaudiosides A, C, and D are able to create desired sweetness levels, onset, and finish, while cancelling out off-notes.
Many manufacturers continue to realize the advantage in “sweetener mixology”: a means to hit targeted sweetening objectives by blending nutritive and non-nutritive options to achieve flavor as well as functionality goals. Flavor enhancers, modulators, and bitterness masking ingredients all can play a role in achieving the highest level of consumer acceptance.
When natural high-intensity sweeteners are used in lower concentrations and combined with nutritive sugars, sugar reduction versus zero calories becomes the targeted outcome. Still, this allows for greater consumer acceptance. Other sweeteners that are trending, such as allulose and tagatose, are among several low-calorie sweeteners referred to as “rare sugars.”
Allulose, however, might soon end up being a less rare ingredient. Not only is the ingredient close to sucrose in functionality and flavor, because of its chemical structure, it is not efficiently metabolized and yields almost no energy, making it essentially calorie-free. Yet, it is naturally found in a number of fruits. Best of all, new manufacturing techniques have brought its price point down considerably, to where it is on par with many of the commonly used polyols.
The challenge to develop sweetened products that meet palatability and satiety objectives continues. This must be done while combatting any negative health and nutrition perceptions associated with the pending “added sugars” food label requirement.
With that said, a world of sweetening options exists where flavor—and romancing that flavor—can also be development objectives. There are cultural differences in preferences and thresholds for optimal sweetness in any application. Knowing the target market’s expectation for sweetness and fulfilling it naturally will equal sweet success. pf
Alexa Bosshardt, RDN, is a research chef, instructor, and sweetener expert. She can be reached at email@example.com or through Prepared Foods magazine.
Going with the Flow
Sometimes, formulating to include honey, maple, or other syrupy sweeteners—or even moister forms of a sweetener, such as a dark brown sugar—presents challenges in packaging or handling that can be overcome by opting for a granulated sweetener instead. Such sticky sugars can successfully be replaced by free-flowing co-crystallized granular or powdered brown sugar and molasses. Also available are free-flowing granules and powders of honey and maple. These alternatives offer convenience and enhanced yield while maintaining the original flavor profiles.
If you are among those who feel that the term “evaporated cane juice” is nothing more than a euphemism for plain old sugar, the FDA agrees with you. Nearly a decade ago, the feds began to frown on the use of the epithet as being deliberately misleading. In 2016, the FDA declared that, in advance of the new sugar labeling guidelines, the term “evaporated cane juice” should no longer be used instead of “sugar,” referring to it as being specifically “false or misleading.” For those manufacturers who still wish to differentiate on the label, there would likely be no objection to listing “sugar from evaporated cane juice.”
A Brief History of Sweet
Most creatures have both innate and learned preferences for sweet foods and beverages. Evidence of cane sugar production goes back nearly 10,000 years. The first written records of this come from Alexander the Great’s army; his commanders reported on a “honey that is produced from cane, without participation of honey bees.” The beet sugar industry is relatively young by comparison, dating to the 1500s. It is thought that it took almost until the 1800s for sugar to be prized as a food and not merely a substance of functionality, whether for enhancing, masking, preserving, or decorating. From the time it was introduced in Europe around the year 1100, sugar was regarded as a spice or condiment. It was typically blended with spices, including ginger, cinnamon, and salt, to alleviate “boredom” in diets with limited variety and to mask off flavors in foods, including rancidity in aging meat.