The rapidly expanding array of sweetener options merits a look at the best uses, applications, and formats whether considering them solely for flavor and performance or with an eye on reduction of nutritive sugars. Among the nutritive sweetener, trending sources include syrups from maple, sorghum, corn, and malted grains.
Honey and agave syrup are on the rise again as well. Also growing in popularity are fruit sweeteners from raisins, dates, figs, prunes, and other dried fruits as well as apples and even citrus. These not only can add flavor as well as sweetness, in some formulations they can substitute for part of the fat. Many fruit sweeteners in the form of pastes and syrups are high in pectin fiber, giving a boost to texture and mouthfeel.
Among high-intensity sweeteners, technology in stevia and monkfruit continues to advance in providing cleaner and more finely tuned sweetness while minimizing the need for maskers. But the real breakout options are the natural, low/zero-calorie sweeteners allulose and tagatose, plus the caloric functional sugars trehalose and ribose.
The first two are sugars are chemically similar in structure to fructose, but provide fewer calories per gram. Tagatose has only about 1.5 kcals/g, and allulose is a far lower 0.2-0.4 kcals/g. Both have good Maillard browning capacity and work well in baked formulations. The latter two have the same calories per gram as sucrose, but provide added benefits. Although tagatose may have its beginnings as lactose, it is lactose-free and, thus, does not pose a problem for those with lactose intolerance. However, it is not vegan.
Trehalose is a glucose-glucose disaccharide used as a food additive in dried and frozen foods. Also known as tremalose or mycose, it occurs naturally in mushrooms, baker’s yeast, and honey but is commercially produced from cornstarch. Trehalose received FEMA-GRAS approval in 2017 for use up to 5% as “natural flavor” in beverages and frozen confections, such as gelato. It is only half as sweet as sucrose and is rapidly metabolized, which reduces spikes in blood sugar.
Ribose is a fundamental component of the energy producing molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and is critical to genetic function and cellular signaling. It, too, does not spike blood sugar, and is about half as sweet as sucrose. It has also been studied for positive benefits to heart health. It most often is used in sports/energy products.
Allulose exists naturally in select ingredients, such as certain dried fruits, jackfruit, sugarcane, wheat, beets, and corn, but only in small quantities. It is produced for commercialization from corn, cane, or beet sugar through enzymatic conversion processing methods.
Allulose is approved for use in an array of food and beverage categories and can replace up to 100% of the sugar in some cake, chocolate, and frozen dessert formulations. Low water activity helps prevent microbial growth and its ability to depress freezing point results in smaller ice crystal formation in ice cream, thus smoother product.
Allulose is about 70% as sweet as sucrose but with 90-95% fewer calories. Allulose works synergistically with numerous HIS sweeteners, including stevia and sucralose, which can be employed to optimize flavor and functionality in formulation. However, some formulations, such as those with fruit and chocolate, have reportedly been able to use allulose as a one-to-one drop-in replacement for granulated sucrose or fructose without any flavor or sweetness impact. Product developers may choose to test their products before including other ingredients.
While table sugar — sucrose — is commonly derived from sugar beets or sugar cane, and maintains its No. 1 position in the sweetener pantheon. However, sucrose specifically derived from sugar cane has developed a certain cachet over the past few years that has attracted consumer interest.
Although fully refined, white extra fine granulated (EFG) sugar has been considered the norm as “table sugar” and in manufacturing, the trend toward less processed sugars that provide flavor and not just sweetness will continue to grow. In addition, bone char (natural carbon) that has historically been used in the cane sugar refining process to decolorize, is not a step in either sugar beet refining or in the production of granulated raw and other less processed cane sugars. Sugar processed with bone char is not vegan.
Less-processed granulated sugars, such as raw, demerara, turbinado, and golden can add interest for inclusion, as well as topical application, because the molasses is within the crystal. The larger crystal size of turbinado sugar, defined by mesh guidelines, adds crunchy textural interest for everything from topping muffins, scones, and cookies to coatings and confections.
Formulations with granulated sugars containing a “hint” of molasses can be enhanced with the addition of fluid molasses for more robust flavor and color. Globally, interesting brown sugars also include molasses-rich muscovado and unrefined panela and jaggery sugars.
WHAT BROWN CAN DO
Molasses is a byproduct of cane sugar refining, yet it is a nutrient-rich commodity with distinctive colors, flavors, and potential for application. Molasses flavor ranges from smooth and mild golden to bold blackstrap. It is also available in light and dark powders, which make excellent choices for dry spice mixes and rubs.
Brown sugars are made by either “boiling” the molasses into the crystals or by “enrobing” (painting) the molasses onto refined white granulated sugar. Cane-derived brown sugars can be manufactured either way, but beet-based browns are produced by painting the crystals with sugarcane molasses, since beet sugar molasses is generally reserved for animal feed and other commercial uses.
Boiled browns are preferred for baking applications where lack of uniformity in painting or possible separation of the molasses from the granulated sugar crystal is not acceptable. Brown sugar syrups and light and dark brown refiners’ syrups also present additional options for consideration where color is a factor. The molasses content of soft brown sugars can vary from brand to brand, as well as within the same facility.
Light and medium (golden) brown sugars contain about 3.5% molasses and dark brown sugars generally over 6% molasses. Higher molasses content adds moisture to the sugar, as well as to formulation, that might require adjustment of other ingredients.
Cane sugar syrups run the gamut on flavor and color spectrums, as well as degree of invert and brix to meet the needs of food and beverage production in any category. In general, the characteristics of invert sugars and syrups can enhance color, browning, binding, texture, and flavor of everything sweetened from dairy, beverages, cereals, baked goods, bars, candy, and icings. The hygroscopic nature of inverts extends shelf life.
Golden Syrup has been a highly iconic British fave since its introduction in the mid-1800s. Golden Syrup is a partially inverted light treacle (molasses) sugar syrup, created as byproduct of the cane sugar refining process. It has caramel and honey notes and a high brix at 82-83°Bx, making it a replacement consideration for honey, HFCS, or brown rice syrup, depending on the application. It is traditionally used as a topping or in flavored dessert sauce or syrup recipes.
Corn syrup is an example of a glucose syrup, is available in light or dark varieties, and is lower in flavor compared to sucrose syrups, maple syrup, or honey. The more neutral flavor of light corn syrup works in its favor for functionality without excessive sweetness. Corn syrups, brown rice syrups and tapioca syrups are among those than can be specified for use by Dextrose Equivalence (DE). The higher the DE, the sweeter and more hygroscopic the syrup is.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), that misunderstood outcast of the sweetening world, is still popular in food processing, particularly in the US in carbonated soft drinks, shelf-stable juices, and baked goods. Still, the non-GMO nature of many corn-based sweeteners, and the rise of lower-calorie or noncaloric sweetener options have all carved away at market interest in HFCS.
HFCS averages 55% fructose and 45% glucose (although some formulations of the ingredient can actually be the reverse ratio, creating an unintended irony of “high-fructose” actually being lower in fructose than table sugar). HFCS-55 is used to designate the 55% fructose formula. Agave nectar or syrup, which has been used to replace HFCS in many applications, is perceived as a healthier alternative but can be as high as 90% fructose.
HFCS is favored for its low cost, uniformity of sweetness, high solubility, and ability to slightly enhance fruit flavors. It also is less susceptible to breaking down from heat or acid and thus has a long shelf life. These all are desirable qualities in an ingredient versatile enough to be used in nearly any food or beverage formulation.
Malt-based syrups and extracts benefit from a “health halo”, due to the protein, fiber, and micronutrients, such as potassium, that enhance nutrient density for these grain-based sweeteners. The protein in malt-based sweeteners can act to strengthen flour in bakery applications. Malt-based extracts, syrups, and powders are 60-65% as sweet as sucrose. Maltodextrins from grain syrups are disaccharides of glucose and maltose, enhancing their appeal if fructose is a concern.
Finished maple syrup must meet a minimum of 66°Bx. As a natural sweetener, maple syrup and maple sugars vary by color and flavor intensity and are prized for maple’s unique flavor. In commercial applications, such as cereals and snack bars, maple may be blended with higher brix syrups for functionality.
Sorghum syrup, also referred to as sorghum molasses, is interchangeable with cane molasses or honey in sweet or savory sauces. Its minimum brix at 74°Bx might affect functionality where a higher brix syrup is a better solution. Targeted sweetness might also require adjustment as sorghum syrup is sweeter than cane molasses but not as sweet as honey.
The taste of sorghum syrup includes “grassy” notes. It has traditionally been a topping for cornbread, biscuits, pancakes, and buttered toast and is an ingredient in many commercialized barbeque sauces. White sorghum syrup contributes color and flavor, as well as protein and amino acids in beer production for yeast nutrition, head retention, and body. It is a gluten free alternative to malted barley extract for gluten-free beer.
While brown rice-based sweeteners are commonly available in syrup form, as with most syrup sweeteners it also is available dried and powdered. Dried brown rice syrup solids can be used for bulking, are water-soluble, and act as a carrier for other sweeteners, as well as for gums, spices, and seasonings. Rice maltodextrins, popular in sports beverages, are created by enzymatic conversion of rice starch and contain a higher molecular weight, inhibiting freezing point depression.
Tapioca syrups are made from the starch that is enzymatically extracted from cassava (yuca, yucca) root plants. Cassava is historically associated with South American, Asian, and Indian cuisines and is a staple starch crop for more than 800 million people globally. Tapioca syrups are commercially available in a range of brix and dextrose equivalents (DE).
Syrups, syrup solids, and tapioca maltodextrins are valued as being gluten free and low flavor, providing low to medium sweetness for bakery, non-dairy beverages, gummies, sports nutrition products, and cereal and other snack bars. Tapioca is a replacement for corn syrup or other glucose syrups.
Sweeteners will always be needed in food and beverage production, and some will rise and fall in popularity. For manufacturers, the growing selection of ingredients available to add sweetness makes it easier than ever to meet consumer demands and ride sweet trends without the need for drastic reformulation.
Alexa Bosshardt, MPS, RDN, is a research chef and hands-on industry consultant who has devoted most of her career to providing recipe formulation and nutritional marketing services to food and beverage manufacturers and restaurant chains. With a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales and multiple degrees from Cornell University, Bosshardt consults for a number of food companies. A regular contributor, read more of her articles on the sweet things in life at www.preparedfoods.com. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.