Is Taking Sugar Out Of Food As Difficult As Industry Says It Is?

There's more to sugar than sweetness, which can make removing it from foods extremely problematic - and not just because of the effects on flavour.

The collection of companies known as “big food” don’t typically engender a great deal of sympathy. So their recent rumblings about the difficulty of meeting sugar reduction targets in the UK’s Childhood Obesity Plan are likely to have been dismissed by most readers.

But there is more than a crumb of truth to those rumblings.

The plan’s goal is to reduce sugar by 20 per cent in nine food categories thought to contribute most to childhood sugar intake, including cereals, sweets, spreads and yoghurts. It might sound superficially simple to achieve but, as ever, the devil is in the detail.

For some categories, sugar reduction is indeed relatively straightforward. In sauces sugar can simply be removed, replacing lost volume with water and, if necessary, compensating for flavour differences with low calorie sweeteners. In other categories, however, there are surprising challenges.

Take cakes – for which sugar is far more than just a sweetener. It is hygroscopic, so retains water, helping keep cakes moist. It also boosts shelf life and quality.

Reducing sugar in a recipe can actually increase the number of calories.

During baking, sugar increases the temperature at which the mix sets, allowing for more aerated structures to form, and hence lighter, more delicate fare. It is also essential for creating delicious caramelised crusts, producing flavours beyond simple sweetness.

More than sweetness

Even if you can compensate for the all those roles, reducing sugar in a recipe can actually increase the number of calories. Sugar has a relatively low calorie density (around 4 kilocalories per gram), so if you just take it out, the proportion of fat (9 kcal per gram) will go up. Unless you reduce portion size, the number of calories will increase.

Replacing it with a starch or protein will have no effect on the calorie content, as they both have a similar energy density to sugar. Although this might be a good strategy for meeting targets, looking at it purely from a calorie point of view, it seems unlikely to do much about obesity.

Some non-sugar sweeteners can have a strong laxative effect. Not an ideal marketing strategy.

Low calorie sweeteners, flavourings and colourings can help with some of these challenges. But there are caveats. Many of the most effective sweeteners, such as aspartame, are not suitable for use in baking because they break down at high temperatures.

Some non-sugar carbohydrates known as polyols can be used as sweeteners, for example sorbitol. But in sufficient quantities these have a strong laxative effect that must be mentioned on the pack. Not an ideal marketing strategy.

Various dietary fibres can replace sugar’s bulk, but these too can cause gastrointestinal upset, and need to be used with care. And even without these issues, consumers are increasingly suspicious of unfamiliar ingredients, demanding cleaner, more natural sounding ones.

Behind the headline-grabbing sugar targets, there is a very sensible commitment that calories should also be reduced, but in many categories of food it may prove challenging to achieve the two together.

Big food is genuinely engaged with this programme, but for it to be successful, everyone needs to be on board. For large manufacturers, with strong R&D capabilities, it may be possible to overcome some of the obstacles.

But smaller players in the most challenging categories might rightly feel like they are being set up for failure.