Sweeteners compared: Study reveals pros and cons of sugar substitutes

May 30, 2023

Meter Food’s research and development lab recently conducted a study that delves into the advantages and disadvantages of top alternative sweeteners

As consumer demand for healthier snacks and treats continues to rise, the pressure from both consumers and governmental agencies to reduce sugar content in foods has transformed the sugar alternative industry into an impressive $18 billion market.

Mary Galloway, the Manager of Meter Food’s R&D Lab, expressed enthusiasm about the study’s findings, stating, “As demand for healthier snacks and treats continues to grow, innovative new sweeteners abound. In their zeal to develop the next great clean-label snack that is low in calories but still tastes great, food companies are finding that each sugar substitute comes with a special set of challenges. Simply put, replacing sugar seems simple, but it isn’t.”

While alternative sweeteners allow for the creation of sugar-free versions of beloved consumer favourites, there is more to sugar and its substitutes than just taste. The removal of sugar affects various characteristics of food, such as sweetness, colour, leavening, tenderness, moisture, texture, freezing point, and more.

Since substitutes like Stevia, Sorbitol, and Monk Fruit Extract do not perfectly mimic sugar’s properties, food scientists must discover new ways to achieve the sugary taste, texture, shelf-life, and appearance that will satisfy consumers.

To accomplish these goals, formulators and food companies need to identify and prioritise the traits of sugar they aim to imitate and those they prefer to avoid. The study’s findings identify the benefits and challenges associated with top alternative sweeteners and elucidate the scientific concepts that explain sugar’s unique characteristics.

Galloway presents a roadmap for formulators, demonstrating how water activity measurements are the most effective means of mitigating the challenges associated with sugar substitutes and how blending different sugar alternatives can yield superior results.

Galloway comments: “Unfortunately, there is no perfect sugar substitute. Many, if not all, substitutes have downsides, such as unpleasant taste, lack of humectancy, caloric value or glycemic index, inability to brown, and others.”

She advises formulators seeking sugar’s humectant abilities to take note that alternative sweeteners in a crystalline state do not bind water effectively. Without careful consideration, alternative sweeteners can crystallise and release moisture in the final product, consequently affecting flavour, texture, consistency, and shelf-life.

The study’s data, according to Galloway, can be graphed using moisture sorption isotherms. Isotherms visually represent the relationship between moisture content and water activity levels in a material at a specific temperature. By utilising isotherms, formulators and food scientists can predict the physical characteristics, shelf lives, and packaging requirements of their products, among other valuable insights.

In conclusion, the study conducted by Meter Food’s R&D Lab highlights the complex nature of alternative sweeteners and the challenges faced by food companies when replacing sugar in their product formulations. It emphasises the need for formulators and food scientists to carefully consider the desired characteristics of sugar and the drawbacks associated with various substitutes.

By utilising water activity measurements and exploring the possibilities of blending different sugar alternatives, formulators can overcome some of the challenges and work towards developing healthier snacks and treats that still deliver on taste, texture, and overall consumer satisfaction.

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