Sugar is undergoing a makeover in food labs as the not-so-sweet science increasingly shows eating too much sugar can pose serious health risks, from diabetes to heart disease. Sugar is already prevalent in foods ranging from cereal and spaghetti sauce to soda and sweets.
A redesign of sugar involves tinkering with the shape of sugar molecules to deliver the same sweetness but with a lower amount of actual sugar. Nestlé is one of the few companies that has publicly discussed its efforts to restructure sugar molecules, though exactly how remains a secret.
“Sugar is not a bad molecule per se,” says Stefan Catsicas, the chief technology officer for Nestlé. “Over time, with no bad intention, we became more and more used to certain sweetness [and] now, we are looking to replace sugar with less sugar and remove calories but keep the same level of sweetness.”
_The approach highlights the growing public pressure on food and beverage companies to offer low-sugar options at a time when data shows that Americans, particularly children, consume too much sugar. Beverages, not counting milk and 100% fruit juice, account for the biggest share, or 47%, of the added sugar consumption. Snacks and sweets follow with 31%. The term “added sugar” also refers to sweeteners such as syrups and honey.
Research shows that sugar stimulates the same pleasure centers in the brain as drugs like cocaine, which could explain the reason Americans have consumed at least 30% more calories per day from sugar since 1977. On average, Americans consume 19.5 teaspoons (about 82 grams) of added sugar every day. The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons per day for women and nine teaspoons for men.
Despite the risks, our appetite for sugary foods hasn’t slowed. Retail sales of chocolate in the country, for example, rose from $11.8bn in 2011 to $13.7bn in 2016, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. Sales of cookies increased from $7.1bn to $8.2bn during the same period.
Soft drinks, which have been singled out for their sugar laden content, have experienced the opposite fate. Retail sales of soft drinks in the US fell from $27.4bn for the 52 weeks that ended in March 2013 to $26.3bn for the same period ending February this year, according to Nielsen, a market research firm in New York City.
Changing the formulations of America’s favorite snacks and drinks without impacting flavor – or revenue – can be a risky move. Remember the public outrage at Coca-Cola for scrapping its classic formula to introduce the “New Coke”?
But rewriting recipes to lower the use of sweeteners is what Coca-Cola, along with other food makers such as General Mills and Dannon, have been working on in earnest, as consumers become more aware of the dangers that come from satisfying their sweet tooth.
The federal government issued a new dietary guideline last year that called for limiting added sugar consumption to no more than 10% of the daily calories. The government also created a rule that requires food labels to specify the amount of added sugar based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Manufacturers will have to start complying in July 2018.
Same sugar, different structure
Food makers are taking different approaches to lower the added-sugar count. Some have embraced the use of bitter blockers, which are made with plants or synthetic chemicals that prevent the taste buds from detecting some of the astringent flavors found in common food ingredients, such as grains and coffee.
Rearranging sugar molecules is another option. Calling it “obscure science”, John Coupland, professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University and president of the nonprofit Institute of Food Technologists, says: “It’s not dangerous, just not common.”
So far, just two companies have announced research into restructured sugar: Nestlé, which sells brands such as Nesquik and Butterfinger, and Israeli startup DouxMatok. While the two companies guard the details of their research, their patents indicate different approaches, according to Mark Butcher, vice president of science and innovation at UK-based research firm Leatherhead Food Research.
The Nestlé method involves hollowing out sugar particles. The company, which posted annual sales of $89.5bn CHF (about $91bn USD) in 2016, announced its effort to reassemble the sugar molecule last November and said it planned to use the new sugar in products (which it couldn’t disclose) starting next year.
The second method binds sugar molecules with a carrier agent to provide concentrated sources of sugar to the taste receptors. The goal is to deliver a powerful hit of sweetness at the moment the restructured molecules come in contact with the taste receptors on the tongue.
DouxMatok attaches sugar molecules to tiny silica, which increases the surface size of the particles and exposes the taste receptors to more of the sweet taste. DouxMatok, a Hebrew word that means double sweet, received a patent for its restructured sugar in 2014.
The company’s CEO, Eran Baniel, compares the result of using the designer sugar to the delivery of chemotherapy.
“In chemo, the drug is encapsulated, goes through the bloodstream and is released when it reaches the tumor, which makes it as effective as possible to attack the cancer,” Baniel explains. “Our innovation holds onto the sugar and releases it when it gets to the taste receptors for a concentrated release of sweetness on the tongue.”
The company’s product works in yogurt, baked goods, chocolate and hard and soft candies. It expects to see products with its restructured sugar to come to market next year.
Good for sales?
Warnings from doctors and government agencies have raised the public awareness about the perils of eating too much sugar. A 2017 Nielsen survey found 22% of consumers are restricting their sugar consumption due to health concerns. Retail sales of sugar and sweeteners off the shelves declined 16% from 2011 to 2016 and forecasted to plummet even further from $4.3bn in 2016 to $4.2bn in 2021, according to market research firm Mintel.
But Catsicas declines to comment on whether Nestlé believes that using its designer sugar – and promoting the low sugar count – will likely increase sales. Instead, he says the company’s commitment to offer healthier choices is an important reason behind the research.
Reformulating sugar is only one of the technical challenges for Nestlé and DouxMatok. Incorporating it into recipes can also be tricky because it isn’t just about swapping out the regular sugar with the designer version, Butcher says. That’s because sugar contributes not only to the taste but also the texture and bulk of drinks and sweets, especially cakes and biscuits.
“Changing the formulation, for whatever need, can impact [taste, texture and shelf life] and manufacturers need to understand the consequence of formulation changes and how to mitigate them,” Butcher says.
Cutting a significant volume of sugar – Nestlé has said its restructured sugar could reduce the amount of sugar needed up to 40% in some of its confections – will impact product sizes. Reducing bulk could leave manufacturers scrambling to find other inexpensive fillers to retain the same shape and size – consumers may not want to pay the same price for something smaller than they are used to seeing.
Baniel offers one example: in milk chocolate, sugar makes up about 60% of the weight; cutting 20 grams of sugar to make what’s normally a 100 gram-chocolate bar will significantly shrink its size. But using more cocoa, which is five times the price of sugar, is not cost effective. There are similar issues with products such as cereal, ice cream and baked goods.
“Reducing the amount of sugar in cake by 30% would make a nice, fluffy, golden cake look like pita bread,” Baniel says.
Catsicas declined to disclose whether Nestlé’s products made with restructured sugar would increase the cost of its products but admitted: “For any innovation, there might be an extra cost; we’ll try not to pass that cost on to the consumer.”
So far, production challenges haven’t stopped potential customers from giving restructured sugar a try, Baniel says.
“There are many more requests for samples than we can possibly handle,” he adds. “All of the awareness over the problems with sugar makes the food industry eager to find a solution and that means that innovative solutions like ours, Nestlé’s and others that surface are going to be very much in demand.”