Formulating to Reduce Sugar

Originally Published: October 30, 2020
Last Updated: February 4, 2021
Image of a hand holding a puzzle piece above the position it goes into several other pieces that have already been connected.

FORMULATING FOR SUGAR REDUCTION is similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle. Food products are built off components that interact with others, like puzzle pieces, to create an overall result. By understanding how the pieces interact, foods can be modified to fit specific goals and criteria. Using this puzzle analogy, Catalin Moraru, Ph.D., Technical Manager Product Development at The National Food Lab, discussed in his presentation titled “Solving the Puzzle: Sugar Reduction Strategies,” originally scheduled for the 2020 Clean Label Conference, an overall approach to formulating to reduce sugar and its implementation in a specific case study.

Reducing sugar content in foods can be accomplished using one or more of the following strategies:
• Substituting some or all sugar(s) with other sweeteners
• Reducing sugar without adding other sweeteners (an option that is gaining ground, as consumers may mistrust other sweeteners)
• Using technology to enhance the perception of sweetness and overall sensory profile
• Switch to savory

However, sugar has many different functions. Sugar provides sweetness and enhances flavor and palatability, while also contributing to color and flavor through browning and caramelization. Sugar contributes to texture and stability and, in some applications, provides fermentation support. The importance of each function depends on the application. In a baked product, for example, all of sugar’s functions may be important; in a beverage, sugar’s role may be limited to providing sweetness and sometimes contributing to its body.

Chart showing potential sugar functionality in food formulation.Click for downloadable version of the chart.

Depending on the food product, nutritive or non-nutritive sweeteners may be options for sugar replacement. Nutritive sweeteners include simple mono- and disaccharides (fructose, dextrose, etc.); polyols (maltitol, sorbitol, etc.); natural extracts/combinations (honey, agave, etc.); or other compounds (maltodextrin, inulin, etc.). Calorie content, glycemic load and potential gastric distress are important considerations.

Non-nutritive sweeteners have no calories, because they are either non-digestible or so intensely sweet that the minute quantities contribute negligible calories in food products. Allulose and erythritol are non-digestible with a sweetness profile similar to sugar and, along with natural high-intensity extracts of stevia or monk fruit, are of high interest right now. Artificial high- intensity sweeteners, such as sucralose, acesulfame-K, aspartame, saccharin and neotame, are still popular—although consumers exhibit increasing interest for natural sweeteners.

Stevia extracts are particularly interesting and challenging, due to the different performance of their active compounds. The bitterness of early stevia extracts was overcome with increased purification—but at increased cost. While the most popular active compound of stevia extracts is rebaudioside A (Reb A), new Reb D and Reb M active compounds are sweeter than the purest Reb A and less bitter. However, these compounds are present at low levels within stevia, so stevia extracts with high Reb D or Reb M levels are expensive. Blends of different rebaudiosides can help achieve a balance between price and taste, said Moraru.

Besides replacing sugar with other sweeteners, other strategies may support sugar reduction. Sweetness potentiators/modulators are not sweet by themselves, but they can improve the sweeteners performance by increasing sweetness perception. For instance, ethyl hexanoate from apples can make some foods taste as if more sugar were present. Reducing intrinsic sugars is another strategy: for example, removal of natural milk lactose by ultrafiltration. Natural sugar can also be modified to make it dissolve faster or increase its surface area, allowing an augmented perception of sugar in selected applications.

Moraru advised that sugar-reduction projects typically include several rounds of refinement and require a number of specific steps, which are also akin to solving a jigsaw puzzle:
• Define the application
• Define objective and scope
• Identify criteria and “guardrails” (sugar’[s] functionality, regulatory/labeling considerations, calorie targets, cost, consumer preference)
• Select tools that meet criteria
• Design solution, narrowing down on potential ingredients or combinations, and strategies of potential interest
• Test the sugar-replacement solution and ensure it meets requirements, or refine and reiterate as needed

A final case study in Moraru’s presentation demonstrated using the puzzle analogy of how a sugar-reduction exercise was implemented for a flavoring add-on for plain yogurt. After several iterations, the final formula developed using erythritol, stevia (Reb D and Reb A), freeze-dried fruit pieces, flavors and a texturizer system met the targets for sweetness, calorie and sugar content, and sensory performance.

Because of its association with chronic conditions, sugar has moved past salt and fat as “public enemy #1” among food ingredients. Reducing sugar content in foods is similar to a jigsaw puzzle exercise; but, with the right tools, approach and analysis, the puzzle can be solved, Moraru concluded.

“Solving the Puzzle: Sugar Reduction Strategies,” Catalin Moraru, Ph.D., Technical Manager, Product Development, The National Food Lab, Inc.,

This presentation was given at the 2020 Sweetener Systems Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to:

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