As innovators strive to create the next generation of healthier, lower-calorie food products, consumers are confronted with an endless array of smartly packaged, vividly colored items with equally endless product claims. “No Sugar,” “No Sugar Added,” “Sugar-Free,” “Low Sugar,” and “Reduced Sugar” are terms strategically placed front and center on today’s supermarket shelves. 

There is good reason for this increasingly sugar-averse product landscape. The overconsumption of sugar is ever-present in society, evidenced by skyrocketing rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetics. With growing awareness of these public health issues, the race is on to reformulate everything from beverages to baked goods in ways that are less laden with addictive sugars while still satisfying our collective sweet tooth. 

But finding such a “sweet spot” is easier said than done. There is no “one size fits all” solution for sugar reduction across all product categories, because each segment—and each product within those segments—brings unique needs for not only sweetness but functionality and ingredient compatibility. The technical nuances of a beverage sweetened with sugar differ from brown rice syrup in your favorite granola bar, lactose in your preferred yogurt, or brown sugar and molasses in the chocolate chip cookie brand you find most delectable. 

Indeed, the bakery segment alone comprises a swath of baked goods whose sugar reduction challenges and solutions are as diverse as the products themselves. 

Of course, sucrose and white granulated sugar, both commonly referred to as sugar, remain the most widely used sweeteners in the bakery category. “Sugar” is used as a catchall term for various sweeteners as it pertains to the nutrition fact panel. For the purpose of this article, I will use the broader term sweetener, which may or may not have caloric value. Sweetener examples include sucrose, corn syrup, glucose, dextrose, maltose, honey, agave, high-intensity sweeteners (such as stevia), and rarer sugars like allulose. 

Sucrose, a disaccharide of glucose and fructose, is derived from either sugar cane or sugar beet. Since its first documented use in Papua New Guinea some 10,000 years ago, sugar cane has been consumed in various raw forms. It was only with further processing and refinement that it yielded a sweetener whose crystalline structure and particle size gave rise to modern food categories such as cookies, frostings, confections, and even soda.

For example, in blueberry muffins (only a few hundred years old!), sugar is pivotal to the structural integrity during the baking process. It also slows down gluten formation, which yields increased volume and tenderness. Lastly, it helps extend shelf life. Likewise, sucrose provides many functional attributes in your favorite food and beverage products aside from its sweet taste.

To determine the best ways to improve the nutritious profiles of foods formulated with granulated white sugar or corn syrup, several steps must be considered. We must first acknowledge the complexities of each product category, their manufacturing conditions, shelf-life requirements, and, most importantly, the overall sensory experience.

Let’s examine the sugar reduction in a chocolate chip cookie with a few options

As displayed in Figure 1, the reference cookie formula contains 7 grams of total sugar per 20-gram serving. Granulated white sugar and light brown sugar each contribute 2.66 grams of total sugar per nutrition facts panel, with each representing roughly 38% of total sugar in the final product. Chocolate chips contribute the last 1.71 grams total per nutrition facts panel or the remaining 24% in the cookie. The remaining ingredients contribute a negligible amount of sugar. 

Let’s suppose the food scientist is tasked with delivering a minimum 25% reduction in total sugars to meet a product claim on the nutrition facts panel. The reduced sugar product must deliver 5 g total sugar per 20-g serving. In this example, various options commonly used for sugar reduction in this product category are explored. 

Note: For simplicity’s purposes, a 50/50 blend of white granulated and light brown sugar is used. Stevia extract is used to enhance sweetness with the reduced sugar options in tests 1-3 only.   

Test 1: Allulose is a rare sugar that is naturally occurring in foods such as figs. Commercially, allulose is produced from corn in the U.S. Allulose is a great option to use in this application, as it is approximately 70% as sweet as sucrose and does not contribute to total sugars on the nutrition fact panel. Among its other attributes, allulose, as a monosaccharide, is the epimer of fructose, which can extend shelf life and provide color development. Per FDA guidelines, allulose is used at the maximum 10% usage level per GRN 400. 

Test 2: Erythritol is a popular sugar alcohol used across product categories, including the emerging keto-friendly products market. Similar to allulose, erythritol is about 70% as sweet as sucrose, and commercially produced from corn in the U.S. Although feasible with allulose, there is greater availability of organic erythritol in the market, which makes it a popular sugar substitute. Similar to sucrose, erythritol will not impart browning, therefore light brown sugar remains in the formula for color development and flavor notes. Per FDA guidelines, erythritol is used at the maximum 15% usage level per GRN 789 in cookie applications. As a result, this product provides a 33% sugar reduction claim at 4g total sugars per serving. 

Test 3: Soluble fiber is commonly used as a bulking agent for sugar-reduced products, often in combination with allulose or erythritol. With the use of soluble fiber as the primary bulking agent, there is an opportunity to slightly increase the moisture level to offset some textural changes that result from the increased fiber content. In this example, soluble corn fiber (90%) is utilized to maximize the sugar reduction suitable for no-sugar-added or sugar-free applications. Soluble fiber options exist that contain a lower level of fiber (~70%) with a small amount of available sugar. The right mixture will, depending on the product application, the type of fiber (soluble corn, inulin, etc.), the usage level, and the percentage of soluble fiber that ultimately impacts the final product nutrition fact panel and ingredient legend.

Test 4: Chocolate chips contribute nearly 24% of the total sugars in this formula. With exceedingly few changes to the remaining ingredients, a 1:1 substitution with sugar-free chocolate chips can easily meet a 5g total sugars target. Here, it’s worth noting that sugar alcohols such as maltitol or erythritol are commonly used for sugar-free chocolate; however, the crystallization, viscosity, mouthfeel, sweetness, processing, and baked performance of those tiny chocolate chips in the final cookie product can vary significantly depending upon which sucrose replacement option is utilized. 

Per Table 1, the percentage reduction in white granulated sugar can vary significantly between light brown sugar and chocolate chips varied based on each test variable. Final product attributes including cookie spread, shelf life, moisture content, digestive tolerance, taste, appearance, and overall product acceptance will differ among each variable. Remember, this is just the first round of experiments! The fine-tuning of the formula via manufacturing considerations, sensory testing, and consumer acceptance can easily turn a seemingly surface-level simple sugar reduction project into a highly complex, elongated endeavor.

As the sugar reduction target increases from 25% to perhaps 50% or even 100% total replacement, the complexity of sugar replacement also increases given its impact on other ingredients in the formulation. In the next example, let’s briefly explore a no sugar added chocolate fudge cake. Per FDA, no-sugar-added products must not contain sugar or sugar-containing ingredients and contain less than 0.5g of sugar per serving. The use of sugar alcohol or high-intensity sweeteners such as stevia or sucralose is permitted. 

Figure 2 displays the sugar contribution of each component in the reference chocolate fudge cake, for a total of 68g sugar per 125g serving. Each component is formulated with a different sweetener or combination of ingredients as displayed in Table 2. Notably, the amount of sweetener used in the product component can be sustainably high. For example, a layered cake formula typically contains 40-60% granulated sugar, which is significantly higher than the 20-30% average usage in a cookie. In the no sugar added chocolate fudge cake, scientists are challenged with the functional replacement of sucrose, powdered sugar, corn syrup, and the lactose present in milk chocolate chips.

The functional attribute of each sweetener in each chocolate fudge cake component can vary, even if the same sweetener is used. For example, sucrose is used in each component (cake layer, frosting, and chocolate chips) in two different granulation sizes, -standard granulated sugar and powdered sugar—yet sucrose serves multiple functions. Table 3 provides a brief overview of the ingredient functionality in each component, along with ingredient alternatives. It’s important to note that the maximum usage level for each, such as allulose (10%) and erythritol (25%), within the cake category is based on digestive tolerance studies in adults per FDA. The maximum usage level of ingredients such as erythritol or allulose varies across food and beverage categories. 

Similar to the 25% reduced sugar chocolate chip cookie, ingredient substitution is typically the first step in the reformulation process. Achieving the desired finished product qualities such as baked volume, color development or shelf-life requirement can become more complex in bakery product categories such as cakes. Modification to the chemical leavening agents or to texturants such as starches or gums may be required to improve color development, baked volume, or even crumb structure. As shown with both products, a combination of ingredients is typically utilized to achieve the desired objective within a sugar reduction project. Still, there’s always one remaining challenge that looms largest over the world of sugar reduction.

Taste Reigns

The multi-billion-dollar sweetener industry contains a plethora of options consistently compared to sucrose, given its prevalence in the modern world of food and beverage. The sugar alternative marketplace is calibrated against sucrose not only for its sweetness but also its caloric value, natural/artificial/clean label status, glycemic index, and cost. Sucrose is the most widely used sweetener across all product categories. 

The sweetness profile of a sweetener encompasses the upfront sweetness, the rate of dissipation, and the overall flavor notes. Sucrose provides upfront sweetness to our taste receptors and dissipates relatively quickly on the palate. As shown in Table 4, monk fruit is roughly 200-300 times sweeter than sucrose with no caloric value. Monk fruit provides more upfront sweetness with fruity notes, yet it dissipates more slowly than sucrose, which is the lingering effect most frequently associated with high-intensity sweeteners. The sweetness profile of sweeteners such as erythritol, honey, or stevia will have vastly different sweetness equivalence, overall sweetness profiles, and caloric values compared to sucrose. This further supports the notion that sugar replacement is more complex than a simple 1:1 substitution.

Discovering the most suitable match to reduce or eliminate sugar must always consider functionality, sweetness equivalency, sweetness profile, caloric value, and, of course, project parameters such as cost. Fortunately, the ingredients in our sugar reduction toolboxes have expanded over the years. For example, stevia options from 10 years ago are significantly different from stevia options now. Today’s stevia glycosides offerings have improved upon flavor delivery, and reduced bitterness, solubility, and process tolerance, allowing innovators to continuously create new and improved products. Emerging food tech continues to push the envelope for new ingredients, continuous process improvements, and reimagined sweetener molecules. 

As demonstrated in the chocolate chip cookie and chocolate fudge cake examples, the sugar reduction percentage target, product category, FDA guidelines, and manufacturing conditions can greatly influence which options are viable for each product category. Technological advancements in sweeteners, texturants, and fibers have allowed our world to expand and improve upon the nutritional profile of the foods of today and the foods of tomorrow. Along the way, food scientists will always be challenged, but never be bored.