Sugar Reduction: The Challenging Necessity
Sugar Reduction - the challenging necessity
by Melvin Jay, Gunna Drinks
Sugar reduction has become a challenging necessity. A necessity because high sugar consumption combined with sedentary lifestyles means Western populations are now faced with a life threatening and economically harmful obesity epidemic. Challenging because humans seem to love the taste of real sugar, which is present in most of the highly convenient processed foods we now buy, is easily available and also cheap!
In this context the Sensory Dimensions Sugar Reduction day provided a unique and excellent forum to discuss this dilemma in more detail, exploring the challenge of sugar reduction from the scientific, consumer and product development perspectives.
- Exploring how the sweetness receptors on our tongues actually work helped us understand how the human palate experiences natural sweetness. Artificial sweeteners ‘hit’ different areas and taste receptors on the tongue, which helps us to understand why artificial/intense sweeteners do not always deliver either the same taste or temporal sweetness profile (sweetness over time) as sucrose.
- This poses a major challenge to the food industry: how to create low calorie sweeteners with the same taste and sweetness profile as sucrose - as our tongues can usually tell whether or not something is the real thing!
- Overall, healthy eating is a bigger driver of sugar reduction in the diet than weight loss. Consumers are certainly looking at sugar levels more closely, regardless of whether the motivation is driven by a desire to lose weight or by a wider healthy eating agenda.
- Consumers seem to be voting actively for lower sugar. A detailed review of market data by IRI proved that many high sugar categories (e.g. confectionary; jam) were seeing long term volume declines, with lower sugar variants seeing growth. This is particularly evident in categories like soft drinks.
- Significant investment is still being made by ingredient manufacturers in the quest for the perfect alternative sweetener.
The perfect sweetener would be significantly lower in calories; would taste exactly like sucrose (with no negative after tastes); be easy to formulate into a variety of food and drink products; and have no health risks.
- Reducing or removing sugar from foods and drinks creates two significant product development problems:
- The taste challenge: Generally, people prefer the taste of sugar over artificial sweeteners that often have noticeable bitter, metallic or liquorice aftertastes and different sweetness onset speeds (temporal differences). The impact of this can, to some extent, be reduced by optimising the level of other flavours in the recipe, or by using flavour masking blends which offset the negative flavours from intense sweeteners.
- The texture challenge: Sugar also contributes a pleasurable texture and mouthfeel to food. An excellent practical session, tasting different meringue formulations, helped us to understand this very well. So when we remove sugar we need to find alternative ‘fillers’ to replace the texture elements that are removed when sugar is reduced. Again, whilst this can be overcome by using alternative ‘fillers’ to some extent, the uniqueness of the sugar matrix means that this is very difficult to do in practise.
How can sensory profiling help?
In the context of this challenging necessity, in my experience, sensory profiling is a powerful methodology to help you achieve sugar reduction, whilst minimising taste and texture trade-offs.
- A common and aligned language: As we saw from the meringue tasting, each of us will describe the flavour or texture of a product in slightly different way to someone else. This makes it hard for us to describe the flavour and texture of our own products in a consistent way within a product development team. Sensory profiling provides food companies with a common language that helps them to align on product description. This common language is essential so we can define our own products and how they differ from competitors, thus giving clear guidance for optimistation.
- An exact flavour/texture map: Sensory profiling also gives you a precise sensory map of your product, showing the objective differences between your product and your competition. Simply understanding the taste and texture differences of your products vs competitors will often be enough to help your R&D team identify several ways to improve your existing products.
- Creating the perfect target profile: Consumers are good at telling us how much they like something, but very poor at telling you why they like it. This means that consumer taste tests can rarely help you to improve your product very far. However by combining consumer liking scores (i.e. how much consumers like your product and competitors) and sensory profiling data you can identify the target sensory profile of the perfect product. This target profile gives your R&D team laser guided direction on what the perfect product will look like, smell like and taste like. This can significantly speed up progress on product reformulations and reduce R&D costs. And by using sensory profiling to map new/improved product formulations you can easily see if your R&D work is taking you closer to the perfect product, without going back into consumer testing each time
- Sensory profiling is equally helpful on cost reduction projects where you need to understand if the change in formulation is impacting product quality or indeed any reformulation challenge you might have.