The Science Behind Sugar Reduction

Originally Published: August 15, 2017
Last Updated: February 24, 2021
A product development blueprint helps the food scientist track how product parameters, such as texture and ingredient functionality, are affected when a formulation change is made.

August 15, 2017 – What if the development or reformulation of a product was entirely predictable? What if it was a process informed by science, rather than “gut feel”—allowing consistency and quality to be controlled on a global scale, regardless of differences in processing, packaging or the ingredient supply chain? The science behind sugar reduction involves ingredient functionality beyond taste.

This was the objective sought by Leatherhead Food Research (UK) Professor Kathy Groves, Head of Science and Microscopy. “If you want to reduce sugar in foods and—this is important—make high-quality products anywhere in the world, then you need to have a proper blueprint of your products,” said Groves.

“Blueprint” refers to a technical map that tells a product developer or food scientist how a product is affected when specific parameters are changed: the effect of formula or process changes on product state, process, structure, texture and sensory properties, for example. While acknowledging that developing such a blueprint is not an easy proposition without access to the relevant technical skillsets, “not doing so for a product (with mass market appeal) can create significant inefficiencies in your product development process. The cost of not doing a blueprint far outweighs the cost of doing one,” said Groves.

How does one begin to develop such a blueprint? Begin by laying out the various parameters that define product performance and quality attributes, such as texture, chemistry, nutritional ingredient functionality and nutritional value, to cite a few examples. Each parameter is, in turn, defined by a list of specific attributes or other variables, such as “foam or emulsion interface” under ingredient functionality, or “viscosity and rheology” under texture. Such a blueprint provides a checklist for product and process developers whereby to address product-related issues in a systematic manner.

To demonstrate the concept, Groves provided the example of a biscuit’s (i.e., cookie) microstructure and its relationship to texture and other quality parameters. She began by showing a crumb structure as seen under a conventional stereomicroscope, emphasizing that the observable crumb structure has “everything to do with your experience when you eat it.”

If one cuts a thin slice through the crumb, one observes “a matrix of starch, protein, sugar and fat throughout the crumb structure.” Transmitted cross-polarized light through the slice causes anything with ordered crystallinity (e.g., sugar, fat) to appear white and, when stained, the matrix becomes much clearer, further distinguishing the positions of starches and proteins in the matrix.

The next step is to zoom into the structure with a scanning electron microscope. Air gaps become evident, which affect the fracture mechanics “when one bites into the product,” said Groves. Changing the type of detector in the electron microscope brings out the (white) fat in the image. Fat distribution can affect taste perception–i.e., a creamy mouthfeel associated with fat particles that are broadly distributed over the crumb surface. Such microstructure data can then be linked with other techniques, such as texture or audio analyses, to determine chewing properties or brittleness, in order to further enhance the blueprint.

What happens to the product blueprint if we replace sugar in the biscuit with a typically used alternative bulk sweetener? Whereas the sugar formula exhibits evenly distributed sugar, fat, starch and protein, these fat, protein and starch interactions are very different in the biscuit crumb with the alternative bulk sweetener. Also, the structure (viewed under a scanning electron microscope) appears very uneven; large gaps and major differences in fat distribution were evident.

“All these observed differences contribute to very different eating sensations,” said Groves. Texture analysis reveals that the sugar formula results in a harder biscuit than with the alternative bulk sweetener product.

It is clear that removing sugar has enormous implications for a biscuit’s microstructure, which in turn has implications for texture, flavor and shelflife. Developing a blueprint for a product’s ingredient function, chemistry, nutritional value, texture and other values provides a map for product formula and process adjustment, or new product development.

“Once you start doing this, it gets better, it gets easier, you become more informed—and you can extend that accumulated knowledge to other product applications,” concluded Groves.

“The Science Behind Sugar Reduction: Ingredient Functionality Beyond Taste,” Prof. Kathy Groves, Head of Science & Microscopy and Consultant, Leatherhead Food Research, Kathy.Groves@

The summary above is from the “2016 Sweetener Systems Conference Magazine.”