Replacing Sugar: More Than Just Sweet

Reducing and substituting for sucrose has been the heartache of food and beverage companies for the past few decades. There are many products trying to do what sugar does, but landing slightly left of ideal, at best. Sugar possesses unique properties in combination that are difficult to replicate with just one product. We have grouped sugar substitutes into categories of origin. Each replacement category includes a variety of options for sweeteners and comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.

High-intensity artificial sweeteners are just that, intensely sweet but lacking in functions (ex: aspartame, sucralose)

Naturally-derived sweeteners are limited in their capacity to mimic sugar and are not stable (ex: stevia, monkfruit)

Sweet proteins are difficult and costly to manufacture but can withstand heating, unlike other alternatives (ex: brazzein, monellin, thaumatin)

Whole food sweeteners can replace the functions of sugar but do nothing in the way of calorie reduction (ex: honey, molasses)

Physical modifications of sugar maintain the sweetness and flavor but are limited in heating and solubility because of their delicate structure (ex: Nestlé’s hollow sugar molecule)

We have constructed a spider chart of the functional properties of sugar and plotted replacements and substitutes (see figure, below). Sucrose is considered the ideal, with a score of five across the board. Sweetness is a primary functional characteristic of sugar, but with it come a whole host of properties that replacements hit with varying degrees of success. The wide variety of sugar applications will dictate which functional properties are most important (i.e., solubility for beverages, bulking and heat stability for baked goods, caramelization for candies and confections).

As with most substitutions, nothing can quite match up to the ideal – when considering sugar replacements it is important to prioritize which functional characteristics are most important for formulation of the food product in question.  While no one product can stand in for sugar in all respects, depending on the application there are suitable matches.

Take Nestlé’s hollow sugar molecule for example, this nifty innovation is essentially a hollow sugar crystal that increases the surface area of the sugar crystal while maintaining less mass and therefore fewer calories. Greater surface area means more contact with taste receptors while an unaltered sugar crystal has a good deal of mass that is imperceptible to taste receptors.  This makes hollow sugar crystals great for candy bars where more sweetness can be perceived from less actual sugar. In contrast, however, this replacement does not work for beverage applications because once the crystal dissolves inadequate sweetness will be perceived.

Sucrose is the gold standard that every replacement or substitute is trying to stand up to – none of the options are quite there yet; but it is pertinent to consider which properties are imperative for a given food product.  Have no doubt that the food science community will not rest until the holy grail of sugar replacements has been discovered and formulated; but until that unlikely and far-off discovery, substitutes should be evaluated and applied on a case by case basis.  Sugar replacements can be applied to target particular properties or in combination to hit the mark.  Food product formulators need to look beyond just sweetness when considering what to do about sugar.

By: Jesse Papirio