Sweeteners: The Next Level - June 2019

The IFST Food Science and Nutrition Group was set up three years ago to blend technology and nutrition understanding. It brings together the people, language and expertise to enable these two disciplines to learn from each other.

Over that time, the Group has hosted events to share knowledge and experience of specific food components including: sugar, fat, fibre and salt. Now, three years on, it is time to revisit the food industry progress with sugar replacement.

Four speakers put forward their views, each having the focused challenge of a five-minute speaking slot. The knowledgeable, vibrant and interactive audience debated. Topics covered included a recap on policy directions, a look at technology solutions, the performance of replacement ingredients and consumer habits and attitudes.

Kate Halliwell (Food and Drink Federation) skilfully chaired the event and the energetic audience Q&A session. The audience made up of around 60 lively nutritionists and food scientists went on to debate the complexities of the current situation for the food industry and the challenges ahead. They also touched on the controversial view about whether the current targets with a focus on sugar reduction would help in reducing obesity in childhood and increasing the overall health of the nation.

The views from the four speakers were:

  • Amy Glass (Food and Drink Federation) spoke about the policy environment for the food industry. The main policy vehicles are the soft drinks industry levy and the sugars reformulation programme; however food composition also comes into play in the proposed promotions and advertising restrictions. Public Health England (PHE) set the food industry a target of reducing the sugars in a variety of categories by 20% by 2020. This included an initial target reduction of 5% for the first year of the programme.  Overall, the initial 5% sugars reduction targets have been met for a number of categories i.e. yoghurts, breakfast cereals, sweet spreads and sauces. In other categories, such as fine bakery, where sweeteners are not permitted and sugars play a multi-functional role, the task is more complex and opens up a whole new technical challenge. Looking forward, it is expected that PHE will take a stronger approach on non-achieving categories and this may be used as justification to expand the levy.  Further policies which may look at sugar levels in foods are anticipated in the Green Paper on preventative health (later 2019) and the National Food Strategy (2020).
  • Jenny Arthur (Leatherhead Food Research) talked about the functional properties of sugar across different product categories. Overall, it is the gold standard for sweetness, yet, it’s also important for adding texture, bulk (volume) and colour (caramelisation). Sugar is also critical for fermentation, aeration and preservation. Sugar is unique and no other one ingredient can contribute all these properties and functions. Consumers are looking for reduced sugar products but they also expect calorie reduction. This is not always possible to deliver with the alternative ingredients. The PHE policies and guidelines focus on sugar reduction and not so much on calorie reduction. The audience debated this point at length. In addition, consumers are looking for ethical, sustainably sourced products with a clean label. Consumers are demanding, they want it all – and so the technical challenge continues!
  • Lindsey Bagley (Eureka) described the ingredient solutions that are available to replace some of the properties of sugar. There is currently no perfect solution. Her presentation included ways to fill the technological ‘gap’ caused by sugar reduction across different categories. Some of the ingredients that can help fill the ‘gap’ include: high potency sweeteners, resistant starch, polydextrose, polyols, fibres, hydrocolloids, water and milk. These ingredients have various regulatory limitations, application niches and also make different calorie contributions. In addition, some of technical solutions are process rather than ingredient driven. For example, it is possible to reduce sugar in milk drinks and yoghurts by hydrolysing the naturally occurring lactose into its components – glucose and galactose. This imparts a higher perceived sweetness and a way to reduce the amount of added sugars. The audience debated the health consequences of changing lactose into other sugars and the effect on teeth. Lactose, being a non-fermentable sugar, is not harmful to teeth but its components sugar molecules are. Lindsey also touched on the Glycaemic Index (GI) of alternative ingredients, pointing out that the GI of starch/maltodextrin is higher than that of sugar, whilst that of fibres, polydextroses and polyols is lower. So in essence, replacing sugar doesn’t always result in lower calorie products and can sometimes result in products that are detrimental to other aspects of health such as: dental health and blood sugar control. 
  • Alex Rowberry (Kantar World Panel) gave a summary of consumer behaviour and its implications for sugar reduction. Over the last 5 years, consumer panel studies have shown that the contents of the average shopping basket has become healthier, with a 3.9% reduction in sugar and a resulting increase in beneficial protein and fibre. Consumers are also becoming more accepting of sweeteners in certain product categories. It’s not all good news however as the drivers of in-home consumption choices are enjoyment at 73%, convenience at 49% and then health at 31%. So only about a third of consumers are making choices based on health. Research has also shown that low income families have the least healthy take-home shopping baskets. This shows the importance of policy to drive changes at Government and food industry level - we can’t just rely on consumers to make their healthy choices alone.

Dr Nicola Stanley, Insight Consultant

Presentations and Podcasts