Sugar Reduction Insights: Dairy Products to Protein Bars

Originally Published: October 30, 2020
Last Updated: February 4, 2021
Image of a child enjoining a glass of chocolate milk.

SUGAR REDUCTION is universally attractive to consumers across a wide range of foods, including both indulgent and healthy products. However, sugar plays multiple roles in foods, contributing to flavor, texture and structure. This makes replacing sucrose particularly challenging, said MaryAnne Drake, Ph.D., William Neal Reynolds Professor, North Carolina State University, in her presentation, “Sugar Reduction in Food Products: Flavor Still Rules!” prepared for the 2020 Sweetener Systems Conference.

“Consumers have different opinions about the types of sweeteners they prefer and the level of sugar reduction they desire but, ultimately, what is most important is taste. Successful sugar reduction requires formulators to understand consumers, the application and the sweeteners,” Drake continued. She offered formulation advice for reduced-sugar foods, including chocolate milk, yogurt and protein bars.

Chocolate Milk: Drake’s laboratory has explored sugar reduction in chocolate milk. Parental perception is important, because parents hold the purchasing power. For parents, the ideal chocolate milk claims include: “all natural,” “reduced sugar,” “reduced fat” and “all-natural sweetener.”

Despite parental perceptions, ultimately, chocolate milk also has to taste good. Several years ago, commercial chocolate milks typically contained 17g of added sugar. Currently, that amount is slightly lower. Not surprisingly, as sugar content decreases, so does product liking. Chocolate milk with 30% sucrose reduction still maintains acceptable liking scores of at least 7 out of 9, on a hedonic scale, Drake said.

To achieve even greater sugar reduction, natural non-nutritive sweeteners were added to achieve an iso-sweet taste intensity equivalent to 12.5g of sucrose. This required 200mg/L of stevia or 350mg/L of monk fruit. Drake’s group then compared combi- nations of non-nutritive sweetener and sucrose, at levels ranging from 12.5g of added sugar to 0g of added sugar.

A Chart comparing protein type on Iso-sweet concentration. n a model system, pea protein required higher sweetener levels than dairy proteins for the same perceived level of sweetness.Click for downloadable version of chart.

A trained panel found that, as the concentration of non-nutritive sweeteners increased, bitterness and astringency increased, and viscosity decreased. A 25% substitution of monk fruit or stevia for sucrose did not change liking. Increases to 50% of non-nutritive sweeteners resulted in less liking, and 100% substitution resulted in significantly less liking. Reduction beyond 40% is possible with further formula modifications.

Yogurt: An online survey compared attitudes and knowledge of 1,300 consumers who regularly consume and purchase yogurt. Over half of consumers surveyed said that they read nutrition labels. When asked questions about a sample label, over 96% correctly identified the grams of saturated fat and protein, while only 84% correctly identified the grams of added sugar, Drake explained.

When consumers were asked which sweeteners they were familiar with, not all consumers could distinguish between sucrose and cane sugar. Monk fruit was not as familiar as stevia, and consumers were even less familiar with erythritol and allulose. There were four distinct segments of yogurt consumers. The largest group (551) prefers “no artificial sweeteners,” and the smallest group (213) prefers “unsweetened” yogurt. Universally, the most appealing sugar claim is “naturally sweetened.”

When looking at individual sweeteners, honey was most appealing (21.8 on a scale of 100) across all consumers. The term cane sugar (15.7) was more appealing than sucrose (10.1).

Kano questions—an approach that prioritizes a product’s features based on the degree to which they are likely to satisfy customers— were used to explore satisfaction with different label claims and help understand purchase drivers. A “high protein” claim is very attractive, but the product must also taste good. Interestingly, consumers were fairly indifferent to claims of “reduced sugar,” “low fat,” “high calcium,” “fortified,” “probiotics,” “indulgent” and “natural ingredients.”

Protein beverages and bars: When looking at protein bever- ages, Drake identified three distinct consumer segments: one focused on protein type and label claims; another focused on total protein amount; and a third focused on products that contain an all-natural sweetener. Great taste is a universal expectation.

In a study of over 1,000 consumers of protein powders, beverages and bars, respondents universally want naturally sweetened products, and stevia is the natural sweetener of choice. Out of 32 attributes evaluated for protein products, “all natural” was the top claim, and “naturally sweetened” ranked third. Protein amount had no impact on sweet taste values for any sweetener. However, more sweetener is required for a beverage with a thicker texture or for a bar.

Many companies currently are developing products with plant or vegan protein. Protein type was found to affect sweetener perception in a model bar application. Pea protein required more sweetener to get to the same iso-sweet level as whey or milk protein.

Sugar reduction is complex, because all consumers are not the same, and their desires change across product types, concluded Drake.

“Sugar Reduction in Food Products: Flavor Still Rules,” MaryAnne Drake, Ph.D., William Neal Reynolds Professor, North Carolina State University

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

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