Taking an innovative approach to sugar reduction

13 Jan 2020

The trend toward lower sugar products continues to grow – but manufacturers should be aware of the limits on consumer acceptance of reduced sugar foods and drinks.

It is generally true that consumers are looking to lower their sugar intake, but some food and drink categories remain challenging. Indulgent foods like chocolate, baked goods and ice cream, for instance, tend to be more appealing in their full-fat, full-sugar forms, even if healthier versions are available and taste good. According to research from Mintel, 53% of UK consumers agree that reduced sugar chocolate feels less of a treat than regular chocolate.

Taking an innovative approach to sugar reduction
A covert and gradual approach may help boost consumer acceptance

On the other hand, ‘no added sugar’ claims are growing rapidly in categories like breakfast cereals, where such claims on new launches were up from 6% in the year to August 2014, to 17% in the year to August 2019. Mintel says the trend for lower sugar is likely to continue, whether overtly in categories like soft drinks, or covertly in categories like sauces and yoghurts.

There is a broad range of solutions available to manufacturers looking to cut the sugar content of foods and drinks, from ingredients like sweeteners and fibres to more holistic approaches, such as cutting the amount of sugar gradually over time so that consumers become used to a less sweet taste, or changing the colour of a product or packaging to take advantage of the psychological connotations of different colours. Researchers have found that red is closely associated with sweetness, for example, and foods that are coloured red or served in red packaging may actually be perceived as sweeter.

However, as the market has matured for reduced sugar foods and drinks, innovative solutions continue to emerge. The Israeli firm Better Juice, for example, has developed an enzymatic approach to cut the natural sugars in fruit juice. This could be used in fruit juice sold directly to consumers, but more likely in fruit juice and concentrates used as ingredients in other products, such as in ice cream or yoghurt. The company says it can cut the natural sugars in orange juice by 30% to 80% by converting them into prebiotic fibres and other sugars.

Also using enzymes to cut sugar, companies like Novozymes and DSM are promoting lactase for its ability to break lactose into glucose and galactose in dairy products. Because glucose is sweeter than lactose, this can allow for a sugar reduction of 20-50% without the need for any additional ingredients.

Meanwhile, US-based Mycotechnology has developed a fermentation technology that can consume bitter compounds associated with natural sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit. It suggests that this could allow companies to omit masking ingredients in naturally sweetened, low-calorie products, leading to cleaner labels.

Amai Proteins is another Israeli company eyeing the sugar reduction trend. It makes designer sweet proteins that contribute zero calories and work well in industrial foods and beverages. This means they are heat-, pH- and shelf-stable, low cost and have a sweetness profile comparable to sugar. The ingredients are still being trialled with manufacturers, but once scaled up to commercial levels of production, the company claims they will be 90% cheaper in use than sugar.

There is still plenty of room for innovation in the sugar reduction sector, especially considering that sweetness is something that consumers are hardwired to crave – and researchers continue to reveal the harmful effects of excessive sugar consumption.

As pressure on manufacturers intensifies to cut sugar in their products, less obvious strategies may help make sugar reduction appealing to consumers even in more indulgent food categories.