Quite possibly the most important theme in healthful eating recently is the desire to reduce excessive sugar in the diet. For good reason too, as this is an important step to provide long term healthy aging and vitality. The real culprit is the sugars added to formulas found on the label as simply “sugar” “cane sugar” or “high fructose corn syrup.” Sugar is digested quickly and causes a large spike in blood sugar levels. In order to clear this excess amount of sugar in the bloodstream, the pancreas must secrete an increased amount of insulin, a storage hormone (the level of insulin depends on the amount of sugar consumed). Insulin clears the sugar from the blood to ensure the body has a steady (not too high or low) amount of glucose in the blood.
The sugar either:
- Gets burned immediately (think of Gatorade when sipping during an active sport)
- Is taken up by the liver and muscle cells and converted to glycogen. If there is room to store the carbohydrate in the liver & skeletal muscle, sugar in the blood will be stored. It takes 3 g of water to every 1 g of glucose to be stored as muscle glycogen.
- If a high amount of energy is not needed immediately ( as in during a sporting event), and skeletal muscles are already topped off with glycogen, or do not uptake the glucose effectively (type 2 diabetes) excess sugar gets converted into triglycerides and stored as fat.
Clearly, the lower the excessive sugar is in the diet, the less likely the food you eat will be stored as fat. Controlling the insulin response and blood sugar levels are key to long term health. Reducing sugar in the diet can be accomplished through a few different formulation techniques:
1. Replacing sugar with the sugar alcohol erythritol
Now I know some may be saying this gives stomach aches! This is true for most sugar alcohols, but erythritol is a sugar alcohol found in grapes and pears among other fruit and is well tolerated. In fact, up to 35 g of erythritol was given to healthy subjects in a 2006 study without any symptoms! Erythritol has only 0.2 calories per gram opposed to sugar containing 4 calories per gram and is about 60-70% as sweet as sugar- yet has no impact on blood sugar levels. The benefit of adding a close substitute- the formula will hold similar solid characteristics as the full sugar formula- an important attribute in the sensory experience and overall functionality of the food.
2. Use taste modifiers to potentiate sweetness
Besides adding back solids (which erythritol can do) to a reduced sugar formula, taste modifiers can help minimize bad flavors in the product, and potentiate & enhance good flavors. Surprisingly, a very low usage rate is sometimes required to provide an impact. Some natural flavor modifiers are extracted from specific fruits & used at very low usage levels (5-10ppm) to impact overall sweetness profile. Even at such a low usage- a significant effect can help the back end sweetness & roundness profile. Sweeteners & sweet taste modifiers have different sweetness profiles- it is essential to combine or “stack” from as many angles as possible to obtain a balanced sweetness curve. When combined with high intensity sweeteners- taste modifiers can also help reduce the aftertaste of natural formulation developments.
3. Natural high intensity sweeteners
Natural sweeteners such as stevia leaf extract and monk fruit extract are two of the most popular high intensity natural sweeteners used. Stevia leaf extract today has much of the bitterness removed so it can be used at effective dosages without the off notes. A glycoside compound known as Rebaudisode A has been isolated as one of the sweetest compounds in stevia- boosting 200x-300x the sweetness of sugar. New technologies have identified other intensely sweet glycoside compounds in the stevia leaf. The challenge however is extracting the glycosides in an economic manner- as new sources comprise of only 1-2% of the leaf. Keep on the lookout for other sweet stevia glycosides in the coming years
Monk fruit extract is less popular than stevia, although it is beginning to show up more in products to reduce sugar counts. Monk Extract is about 200x sweetener than sugar and makes for a great partial substitute to sugar. It is recommended to combine a small amount of stevia and/or monk fruit with sugar in a reduced sugar/ low sugar formula to avoid the bitterness that can occur when large amounts are added.
Natural sweeteners will continue to climb in popularity opposed to using chemical derived sweeteners such as sucralose and acesulfame potassium.
4. Sweet fibers
Chicory root fiber is a prebiotic fiber found in a variety of snack bars and beverages today and can help potentiate sweetness. The reason it is used so heavily in the food industry is due to:
- Stability: It bakes very well in snack bars- chicory provides good bulking material to hold the contents of the bar together
- Flavor- It is flavorless & colorless- making it ideal for fiber fortification. It can even help negate off notes
- Prebiotic fiber- Prebiotic fibers are essential to maintain healthy gut bacteria. Gut health has been shown to be instrumental in many health parameters.
- Sweetness– Certain Chicory root fibers have about 50% the sweetness as sugar- without the added sugars. This is instrumental in reduced sugar formulas as adding chicory root can add back sweet characteristics, reduce off notes, and provide healthy prebiotic fiber.
Putting it all together:
- Provide similar solids in a non-insulin provoking and tolerable manner (Erythritol)
- Potentiating good mouthfeel, reduce astringency and improve overall sensory experience with flavor modifiers
- Use natural high intensity sweeteners to boost sweetness to desired level (Stevia leaf extract and Monk fruit)
- Look for sweet fibers to add back sweetness, add mouthfeel and eliminate off notes (example of which is chicory root).