Sugar reduction demands an array of options to either mask off flavors and objectionable aftertaste or to intensify, or to synergistically round out the perception of the sweetness profile. Although both nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners build sweetness with increased concentration, they do not follow the same linear curves. Nutritive sweeteners will always result in more concentrated sweetness with a clean finish. Most low- and non-nutritive options have concentration thresholds, above which lingering off-notes or digestive side effects present and eventually become objectionable.

The drive to reduce sugar derives from two consumer demands: lower calories and “healthier” (read: no empty calories) ingredients. The 2021 Sweets and Snacks Expo revealed portion size still being a major control point for less sugar. On hand were a numerous single-serve packaging examples of sweet snacks and confections with no more than 200 calories.

Candy has been a primary target for sugar reduction, with many products being sweetened wholly with stevia or monkfruit, and others innovatively blending nutritive and non-nutritive options. The Hershey Co. recently introduced its zero-sugar version of its Reese’s peanut butter cups made exclusively with sucralose. Each 26g portion contains 110kcals, saving about 70kcals over the original version, and boasting 0g total sugars. The company also launched its Skinny Dipped Cups dark chocolate peanut butter cups, which blend allulose, cane sugar, and organic maple sugar for 4g total sugars in each 30g portion.


Coming to Fruition

Stack of Waffles with Blueberries
Allulose continues to gain traction as a near-zero calorie clean-tasting sweetener that can be a 1:1 replacer of nutritive sweeteners in most formulations. PHOTO COURTESY OF: BetterFoods, LLC/MyCerealMix

A number of sweet product makers have been capitalizing on “no sugar added” or “no added sugar” claims by using the natural sweetness from concentrates and powders of fruits and vegetables (i.e. from sweet potatoes and other sources), or non-nutritive high-intensity sweeteners. These are balanced to match established sweetness profiles. However, many companies also are touting the naturally less-sweet profiles of their products that contain whole dried fruit or fruit pieces and declaring “No Sugar Added” on the front of the package. The sources of sweet are limited to what’s in the raisins, dates, apples, or dried blueberries, raspberries, or strawberries.

Date paste contributes sweetness, as well as binding and texture. This favorite sweetener in Middle Eastern and North African tradition has enjoyed a new Western success in items such as Mondelez International, Inc.’s Enjoy Life brand Soft Baked Fruit & Oat Breakfast Ovals, as well as its Chewy Bars.

Date powder and apple powder enhance each other in General Mills Food Co./Small Planet Foods Cascadian Farms brand Cinnamon Apple Granola. Raisin juice concentrate is blended with other nutritive sweeteners in the company’s new line of organic fruit-infused bars, as well as its chewy granola bars and Soft Baked Squares. Sweetening innovation for Reed’s Inc.’s All-Natural Jamaican Ginger Beer takes a twist with pineapple juice from concentrate complementing cane sugar in formulation.

Natural, plant-based prebiotic inulin is a fructan (polyfructo-oliggosaccharide) that is used to replace a portion of both sugar and fat in foods, while providing the benefits of a prebiotic fiber. It is about a third as sweet as sucrose.

Stevia remains a go-to choice for many processors seeking up-front sweet flavor without the calories. Advances in stevia technology continue, with rebaudioside-D now available and boasting a cleaner taste and minimal aftertaste similar to rebaudioside-M stevia leaf extract. FEMA/GRAS-regulated natural flavors with Modifying Properties (FMPs) applied for rebaudiana-B stevia leaf extract have capacity for intensifying or reducing certain flavor characteristics in savory sauces and condiments, like ketchup.

Rebaudioside-M stevia is prized for its clean sweetness and almost no hint of the residual bitterness in some other stevia forms. It still is challenged with limited availability and higher cost, but it is gradually becoming more available and affordable due to production technologies that include extraction, bioconversion, and fermentation. Extraction remains the method of choice for some companies producing high purity (99.5% or greater) product.


Moove Over Sugar

Sugar reduction for dairy-centric categories, including milk, yogurt, and ice cream, is trending, especially in formulations removing lactose, the naturally occurring disaccharide sometimes called “milk sugar.” To minimize added and total sugars, Chobani, LLC reduces the lactose content of its yogurt through an ultra-filtration process for its Zero Sugar line, then blends monkfruit extract, rebaudioside-M stevia leaf extract, and allulose for a sweetness profile that matches sucrose.

Allulose continues its move up the ladder of preferred low-/zero-calorie replacers for nutritive sweeteners. It currently is the only clean-taste, near calorie-free (0.4kcals/g) sweetener that can be a one-to-one drop-in for sucrose or fructose. This is because it is a sugar, chemically similar to fructose and with a flavor profile falling between sucrose and fructose. Although stated as having 70% the sweetness of sucrose, its long finish and fructose-similar qualities can help elevate fruit and chocolate flavors in products, compensating for any diminished sweetness.

Service Dairy, Inc.’s Nubocha Dairy-Free gelato flavors are sweetened exclusively with allulose. As allulose continues to gain consumer recognition and acceptance, it is becoming more visible in product development. Among its many functional benefits are freezing point depression and melting characteristics like sucrose, making it attractive for frozen confections.

WWF Operating Co.’s SoDelicious light frozen dessert line is dairy-free, plant-based, and pea protein-fortified. Many of the company’s products are sweetened with a blend of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners, including erythritol, organic tapioca syrup, cane sugar, or molasses. The company’s coconut and oat milk-based offerings, which also contain pea protein, are sweetened with a combination of erythritol, stevia, and monkfruit.


Protein-sweetened Synergy

Plant-based protein-derived sweeteners on the horizon with uniquely sweet characteristics are targeted for commercialization primarily for flavor enhancement. Many protein-derived sweetness compounds are naturally found in exotic fruits native to West Africa. Some of these have a sweetening potential up to 5000 times greater than sucrose.

Thaumatin (Thaumatococcus danielli-Benth) proteins from the katemfe fruit, blended with natural nutritive or high intensity options, such as stevia, have been identified as a perfect pairing of sweetness and functionality. Although the variety of thaumatins identified are characterized as having unusual sweetness with slow onset and a lingering licorice back note, they are effective at masking bitter and other objectionable lingering notes.

Commercialization of thaumatin through bioproduction can reduce cost and optimize production capabilities. The oubli berry (Pentadiplandra brazzeana) from West-Central Africa is a natural source of another sweet protein, brazzein, which may be commercialized in the coming year via microbial fermentation. The brazzien sweetness range is 500-5000 times that of sucrose. Other fruit-based proteins for future potential lab-based development include miraculin (from the Synsepalum dulcificum berry) and curculin (from the Curculigo latifolia fruit).

As sweetness tech continues to expand, food and beverage developers will find greater ways to bring sweet indulgences to consumers. With sugar reduction currently a top priority, opportunities to meet this challenge are certain to remain sweet.