Sweeteners & sugar: health drives demand

In light of the wide range of sugar replacers or sweeteners on the market, has the use of regular sugar in food manufacturing become obsolete?

While this question might be a little over dramatic, the role of sugar and its use by manufacturers has certainly changed.

Sugar replacers offer sugar-like properties to food, namely taste, texture and volume, while being low caloric, low glycemic, and not promoting tooth decay, as regular sugar does.

These characteristics give manufacturers an opportunity to produce products that target basic nutrition, general wellness and specific health conditions like diabetes and obesity, which is of particular importance as consumers increasingly opt for healthier foods.

“The trend towards health and wellness products seems to be on the increase,” Nutrinova’s technical marketing manager Katrin Sälzer said.

“For consumers set on a healthier lifestyle, sugar is one of the first ingredients they look to cut out.”

But what of those consumers that enjoy the full-bodied sensory experience of regular sugar, are not concerned with cutting calories and prefer natural ingredients over artificial ones?

Confectionery Manufacturers of Australasia (CMA) chief executive officer David Greenwood says a contradiction exists in the marketplace at present.

“Because of obesity and other health reasons, people are looking for an increasing number of products using sugar replacers though at the same time there is a trend for all natural ingredients in products,” he explained.

“The perception of sugar varies from ‘all good’ and ‘all natural’ to ‘white death’.”

Given the trend towards healthier products it appears the role of sugar in food manufacturing will not be entirely replaced by sweeteners but complimented by them as consumers recognise the role sucrose, as opposed to synthetic sweeteners, has to play in their health and wellbeing.

Sweetener types

Generally speaking, sweeteners can be divided into three categories.

  • High intensity sweeteners replace the sweetness of sucrose on a scale so great that it only needs to be added in small quantities. They are typically used in calorie-reduced or calorie-free beverages because the bulk that sugar provides in these products can be easily supplemented with additional water.
  • Bulk sweeteners, on the other hand, replace the volume that sugar brings to a product, particularly in solid products like confectionery, but are generally less sweet. To correct the sweetness level, a bulk sweetener will often be blended with a high intensity sweetener.
  • Polyols, a class of bulk sweeteners, replace the bulk, sweet taste and mouthfeel of sugar but contain fewer calories, lower glycemic levels and do not contribute to tooth decay.


Cargill Nutrition and Health’s global nutrition manager Peter de Cock says that with the whole range of bulk and high intensity sweeteners on the market, it is now possible to replace sugar in virtually all food and beverage products.

However, the process of replacing sugar is not simple. “Sugar has a whole range of technological functionalities in foods: sweetening, bulking, texturising, humectancy, reducing freezing point, browning, bitter masking, and preserving, to mention a few,” he said.

“And it does that at a low cost.”

“It requires much knowledge and experience to replace these functionalities with an alternative sweetener with minimal difference to the reference product formulated with regular sugar.”

The CMA’s Greenwood, however, maintains that sugar can never, and will never, be entirely replaced in food manufacturing.

While he does not deny the fact that certain blends of sweeteners can effectively mimic the flavour, texture and water-binding properties of sucrose, for instance, Greenwood attributes the ongoing demand for sugar by food manufacturers to the general distrust of chemicals in the food supply, a move towards organics and the trend towards more indulgent or premium foods.

IBISWorld reports that one of the most significant trends in the confectionery manufacturing industry is the increasing number of high-end chocolates on the market in response to the rising popularity of luxury goods.

Confectioners producing chocolate from perceived high-quality raw ingredients, such as the Lindt range, are successfully carving a niche in this lucrative segment, though IBISWorld notes this trend represents a key opportunity for mainstream confectionery manufacturers in the local industry.

Sweetener success

A growth in the premium confectionery segment has been paralleled by a growth in the sugar-free segment, growing at an annual rate of approximately 20%, according to IBISWorld.

Unsurprisingly, the added health benefits that sweeteners can bring to products traditionally containing sugar have lead to their success.

Slow energy release

Isomaltulose, which is now available in Australia and New Zealand following its approval in August 2007, delivers the full energy of sugar, but is released slowly because of isomaltulose’s slow digestibility.

“Due to the delay in absorption (compared with regular sugar) because of the fact the body has difficulty breaking down the strong chemical bond between glucose and fructose molecules in isomaltulose, less insulin is produced by the body, the glycemic index is lower, and the release of energy is prolonged over a longer period of time,” Cargill Nutrition and Health’s de Cock said.

This makes isomaltulose ideal for the development of low GI foods, energy drinks and nutritional energy bars.

Fat mobilisation

Functional food group BENEO-Palatinit supplies isomaltulose under the brand Palatinose in Australia and New Zealand.

Produced from pure beet sugar, its sensory profile closely resembles that of sugar, while only being half as sweet, and it can replace sugar in a 1:1 ratio.

Sensory tests conducted by Palatinit have shown that Palatinose can exert a positive influence on the flavour profile of end products, particularly when functional, and often comparatively bitter, ingredients are used.

Backed by scientific studies, Palatinose is the only low and slow glycemic carbohydrate (with a glycemic index of 32) to supply energy in the form of glucose over a longer period of time compared with sucrose, assisting with weight loss and control.

Recent studies conducted by research institutes in Germany and Japan looked at the effects of Palatinose on plasma glucose, insulin levels and free fatty acid content in the blood, as well as its possible influence on energy production from the body’s carbohydrate or lipid rese rves.

Participants that had consumed a Palatinose-based liquid meal as opposed to a dextrin-based meal had a considerably higher concentration of free fatty acids after ingestion, resulting in a higher rate of fat oxidation.

A lower rate of energy production from carbohydrates was also noted, while the fat burning rate increased significantly.

A similar study conducted by Freiburg University on the effect of sports drinks containing Palatinose, as opposed to a high-glycaemic maltodextrin, concluded that the proportion of energy supplied by fat was 25% higher for the Palatinose group than for the maltodextrin group.

Low calorie

A sweetener like erythritol, on the other hand, is suitable for low-calorie variants of confectionery, beverages, dairy and frozen desserts, and baked goods.

This polyol is a naturally occurring sugar in fruits, mushrooms and fermented foods, such as cheese and wine, and is manufactured by a natural fermentation process.

It offers a solution to both health and indulgence, having a taste and functionality similar to sucrose but containing almost no calories.

“Herein lies the difference between a bulk sweetener like isomaltulose and polyols,” de Cock explained.

“Polyols are calorie-reduced and are therefore ideal for low-calorie food and beverages. However, isomaltulose is not targeting weight management through calorie reduction but through the slow release of energy.”

Given the fact that there are sweeteners that are in fact sugar derivatives (use regular sugar as their starting material), such as Isomalt and Palatinose, it is evident that the role of sugar is not necessarily replaced by sugar substitutes, but is merely changed.

Products with sugar replacers will continue to grow in the context of overall innovation though there will also be a role for sugar as manufacturers look to niche markets and opportunities to provide consumers with more choices.


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