Sweet Substitutes
by Lori Dahm
Alternatives to sugar are appearing in more dairy products due to consumer demand.
Foods that offer consumers a health benefit or weight management solution have become extremely important in today’s obesity-focused climate, and as a result, sweetener ingredients that reduce or eliminate sugar have been pushed into the limelight.
Sweetener ingredients are increasingly being used to partially or fully replace fructose in several dairy categories, most notably in ice cream, but also in yogurts and flavored milk beverages.
Much of this new sugar reduction trend was fueled by the low-carbohydrate craze that is fading away. Foods and beverages that rode the low-carb wave were formulated without sugar or with reduced sugar levels, utilizing either high-intensity sweeteners with bulking agents or polyols to replace the sweetness of fructose.
Although consumers have stopped obsessing upon low-carb options, the effect of a nation trying to lose some of its girth remains a prevalent force for the food industry. The newly released Food Guide Pyramid and the 2005 Dietary Guidelines encourage consumers to avoid added sugar whenever possible. And the purported evils of high-fructose corn syrup continue to motivate mothers and other consumers to seek foods and beverages that don’t deliver the ‘empty calories’ of fructose.
“Consumers are increasingly calorie conscious. The growing awareness of the dangers of being overweight means that health-conscious consumers are interested in alternatives that will help them keep in shape,” says Brendan Naulty, vice president of sales and marketing, Ajinomoto Food Ingredients LLC, Chicago. “Consumers’ primary concerns are the levels of fat and sugar in their diet. In a survey conducted last year, 37 percent of 1,000 American consumers spontaneously listed sugar as an ingredient that is bad for them, and 28 percent listed fat. Yet very few people — less than 1 percent of the sample — were trying to avoid low-calorie sweeteners.”
For manufacturers, using either high-intensity sweetener ingredients or the polyols to create products that consumers perceive to be healthier is a winning proposition. Knowing how to formulate these foods and beverages successfully requires an understanding of the different functional characteristics that the sweetener ingredients deliver in various types of food applications and how these ingredients are optimally used in formulation.
In the Freezer Case
The dairy category demonstrating the biggest increase in the use of sweetener ingredients is ice cream and frozen desserts. Reduced-sugar or no-sugar-added ice creams have become extremely popular with consumers who are reluctant to forfeit indulgence and seek decadent frozen desserts with lower sugar levels. Commonly used sweetener ingredients in ice creams include Litesse polydextrose, acesulfame potassium and various polyols, and more recently the use of Splenda-brand sucralose in ice cream has become widespread.
“Frozen dairy desserts require a delicate, clean flavor. Splenda sucralose is made from sugar, tastes like sugar and does not produce a browning reaction during pasteurization, which results in an overall cleaner flavor,” says Joni Simms, technical service manager of the food and ingredients Americas division of Tate and Lyle, Decatur, Ill. “In addition, being readily soluble, Splenda sucralose can be easily incorporated into a wide range of frozen dairy dessert base mixes without settling, precipitating or causing any changes to regular production methods.”
The consumer marketing by McNeil Nutritionals of Splenda has been successful in communicating to consumers an assimilation between Splenda and sugar (provoking legal action by the Sugar Association), and it is likely that consumers are embracing the increasing presence of sucralose in reduced-sugar ice creams and other products because of this association.
Ice cream applications that utilize sweetener ingredients require a replacement for sugar’s bulking qualities, and a combination of maltodextrin and polydextrose is recommended for use with Splenda, along with sorbitol to achieve the proper freezing point depression.
Other frequently used sweetener ingredients in ice cream formulations include other polyols.
“Our Litesse polydextrose is frequently used in no-sugar-added, reduced-sugar, low-carb and light ice creams for sugar replacement, calorie reduction and carbohydrate management,” says Donna Brooks, product manager of Litesse and lactitol at Danisco Sweeteners, Ardsley, N.Y. “Lactitol also works well in these types of ice creams because it also replaces sugar, reduces calories and is non-glycemic. And because lactitol is derived from milk sugar — lactose — it provides excellent taste.”
Litesse has a long history of being used in no-sugar-added ice creams and is well-suited to help enhance the texture and mouthfeel of reduced-sugar ice cream products. That Litesse is also a prebiotic fiber is another positive health benefit the ingredient offers.
“Sunnet-brand acesulfame potassium is used in many sugar-free ice creams due to its blending ability with nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners, and its unique, clean, upfront sweet taste,” says Graham Hall, president and chief operating officer, Nutrinova Inc., Somerset, N.J. “Another technical benefit of Sunnett is its heat stability that makes it viable in dairy manufacturing processes.”
Sucrose and corn syrup solids are the traditional sweeteners used in regular ice cream products; they add functional characteristics such as sweetness and bulk, and also depress the freezing point.
“At last year’s IFT [Institute of Food Technologists show] we featured our no-sugar-added vanilla and chocolate ice creams that use a maltitol syrup designed to replace sucrose and corn syrup. Because maltitol is 90 percent as sweet as sucrose, no high-potency sweetener is required,” says Dr. Ron Deis, Ph.D., vice president of technology, SPI Polyols, New Castle, Del. “Polyols do not participate in Maillard browning, so a no-sugar-added vanilla ice cream is whiter in appearance than its sugar counterpart. but the sweetness and texture are very close to a regular ice cream, according to extensive sensory studies conducted at Penn State.”
When alternative sweetener ingredients are used in ice cream and frozen dairy desserts, the product attributes such as bulk, sweetness and freezing point must be considered and offset by other ingredients in the formulation.
“Most no-sugar-added products, and especially the no-fat or lowfat products, often contain high levels of polydextrose or maltodextrin to help provide body to the ice cream, but these ingredients can sometimes mask flavor,” says Linda Dunning, dairy technical manager for Danisco Sweeteners, New Century, Kansas. “Danisco uses our ‘Aura’ flavor line that was designed for use in artificially sweetened and reduced-sugar dairy applications to help overcome some of the masking and the ‘artificial’ flavors associated with no-sugar-added ice creams. By selecting the right balance of sugar alcohols, bulking agents and artificial sweeteners, it is possible to effectively replace the technical attributes provided by traditional sweeteners.”
Yogurts and Smoothies
In the yogurt category, reduced-calorie and lowfat yogurts are an established segment, particularly because consumers often eat yogurt for its health benefits and therefore seek yogurt products with lowered fat levels or reduced calorie content. The most commonly used sweetener ingredient in yogurt is aspartame.
“The typical fat-free or sugar-free yogurt uses aspartame; most use aspartame and some crystalline fructose for their synergistic effect in yogurt applications,” Naulty says. “In years past, these products were targeted toward diabetics who couldn’t tolerate sugar. But now the desire for reduced sugar has gone mainstream, and in the dairy aisle the fat-free yogurt arena with aspartame has become a relatively large category.”
In yogurt applications, aspartame is usually added after fermentation to the fruit prep for yogurt products so that the yogurt cultures do not degrade. Aspartame has a sugar taste and can enhance fruity flavors, particularly citrus flavors.  
Of course, the marketing reach of Splenda has extended beyond the freezer case and now some of these reduced-sugar and reduced-fat yogurts are starting to use Splenda in their formulations.
“Splenda-brand sucralose is low pH stable, and so is able to extend the shelf life of high-acid products such as yogurts and acidified milk drinks,” Simms says. “It offers dairy producers great functionality and is ideal for any manufacturer looking to change a product formulation into low calorie or low sugar.”
Although the advent of Splenda in yogurt may catch the attention of the consumer because the awareness of this branded ingredient is so high, up until now consumers may not have been cognizant of the use of the sweetener ingredient aspartame in yogurt products.
“If the yogurt label states sugar-free, consumers might know something is replacing that sugar,” Naulty says. “But in general, for the very popular fat-free yogurt products, consumers may not realize that a sugar substitute is being used because the products taste great.”
Consumption of yogurt products has risen dramatically in the past few years as consumers have learned of the inherently healthy quality of this cultured dairy product. The growing popularity of yogurt has also spurred consumer interest in drinkable yogurts and smoothies, which can also use sweetener ingredients if calorie reduction or sugar replacement is the goal.
“We have done considerable applications work using a maltitol solution in reduced-sugar smoothies, and this year at IFT we will be demonstrating the use of maltitol solutions and syrup to reduce sugar and calories in smoothies. Maltitol syrups contribute significantly to the sweetness and texture of these products in a way not possible with stabilizers and high potency sweeteners alone,” Deis says. “Smoothies are very popular in Europe, Latin America and the Pacific Rim, where they are consumed for their prebiotic benefits. With the emphasis on sugar reduction here, and a turn toward dairy beverages as an alternative, Americans are beginning to discover these products.”
Milk
As for flavored milk products, sweetener ingredients are just beginning to become a force in this dairy category.
“Aspartame can be used in flavored milk beverages, but currently other parts of the world see more of this type of application than we see here,” Naulty says. “But similar to the smoothies, meal replacement drinks or yogurt drinks that use aspartame to reduce carbohydrate levels or sugar content, aspartame is an appropriate sweetening agent in flavored milks.”
When using sweetening ingredients in milk beverages, the viscosity of the product is affected by removing the sugar, so formulations may incorporate gums or stabilizers to maintain the desired mouthfeel.
“Flavored milks are starting to become more popular in schools due to the activities of MilkPEP and similar programs, and due to the actions by schools to remove high-sugar beverages from school programs,” Deis says. “We have developed flavored milks which reduce sugars further than those currently available without giving up significant texture and sweetness.”
Recently, the most common cause for using sweetener ingredients in milk beverages has been the debut of reduced-carbohydrate milks in which sugar was removed and replaced. Now that the low-carb trend is waning so rapidly, use of these ingredients if more often sought for their ability to reduce sugar levels, calories, cariogenicity and glycemic impact.
“Reduced sugar is a category that is only now starting to become of interest, particularly since consumers have become more aware of sugars in their diet as an outcome of the low-carb explosion,” Brooks says. “
In the past, products offered have been either no sugar added or full sugar, so this in-between category can appeal to consumers looking to improve the nutritional profile of a product without having to go all the way to sugar free.”
The jury is still out on whether consumers will embrace the developing movement to monitor the glycemic index load that a product offers, which is a trend being seen in New Zealand and Australia and certain parts of Europe.
Common wisdom holds that the concept will likely prove too amorphous and complex to become popular with American consumers. But the move to continue seeking products that are perceived as healthier due to their lowered sugar content is expected to continue full steam ahead.
“For the U.S., glycemic index and glycemic load will probably not be favored for appearance on the food label. Most companies do not support additional carbohydrate statements on the nutritional panel and most do not support glycemic labeling,” Deis says.
“But the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a reduction of added sugars in the diet, and food companies will more likely seek to reduce sugars and calories in products, whether this is stated on the label or not.”