One of the most attention-grabbing features of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is the conclusion that added sugars should contribute less than 10% of the calories a person takes in on a typical day. Not to be outdone, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a dedicated “added sugars” line on a soon-to-be-updated Nutrition Facts panel.

The DGAs, as they are known, influence everything from federal nutrition policy and school-lunch menus to the advice that doctors give patients. They also affect how the food industry develops products. They were issued in January by the United States Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

The FDA move makes questions like, “Where are our added sugars? How many do we have? and How can we bring them down?” more important than ever. Dairy processors are already looking for answers, said Jonathan Hopkinson, a senior applications scientist for DuPont Nutrition & Health in New Century, Kan. The “mantra” he’s hearing? “Sugar these days is the new fat.”

Why the fuss?

Sugar’s shift in status has long been in the works. While the debate continues over how much responsibility sugar bears for chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes and heart disease, the case as to whether or not it plays a role at all is closed. The verdict is not in sugar’s favor.

Added sugars spark concern based on the belief that their excess consumption not only increases overall energy intake but steers people away from nutrient-rich foods toward products packed with “empty” calories. Those supporting this notion, notes the FDA, include the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization. All recommend decreased added-sugar consumption.

So from that angle, encouraging Americans to mind their added sugars seems reasonable. As Yuma Tani, R&D deputy manager, Matsutani America Inc., Itasca, Ill., noted, “By breaking out added sugars on the Nutrition Facts panel, consumers will gain additional guidance into the type of sugar being consumed and its nutritional profile.”

The FDA has yet to define the term, but proposed regulation 21CFR101.9(c)(6)(iii) would include those sugars added to foods during processing or packaged as such. This means garden-variety mono- and disaccharides (glucose, dextrose, sucrose, fructose, et al), syrups from sources as diverse as corn and agave, ingredients isolated and concentrated such that they’re virtually sugar themselves (think fruit-juice concentrates), honey and other caloric sweeteners. Excluded from the definition would be sugars naturally present in a food, as well as sugar alcohols and non-caloric sweeteners added to it.

So what about ingredients used primarily for other functions but that coincidentally contribute sugar? Think about the lactose in nonfat milk solids which are added to ice cream.

Hopkinson asked, “Does this represent added sugar or does it occur naturally in milk?”

One way to decide might be to look at the ingredient’s intended purpose in the formulation. Is it there more for the added solids or the sweet taste? Even that test suffers from subjectivity. The upshot, said Hopkinson, is that “a precise definition of ‘added sugar’ may end up being as confusing to the consumer as the precise definition of ‘natural.’”

Distinction without a difference

It may be as misleading, too. FDA favors the added-sugars line because of what it believes is an inverse relationship between a product’s micronutrient density and its total added sugars. But Hopkinson takes issue with that association.

“Using added sugar as the labeling factor for lack of micronutrients may lead to misunderstanding and poor choices,” he said.

A can of concentrated grape juice contains about 50 grams of sugar, none of it added. A chocolate dairy drink may have 5 grams of added sugar, but because those sugars are added, “it would look much worse to that same consumer, though it contains only a tenth as much total sugar,” Hopkinson said.

“When it comes to food labels, it’s food chemistry, not physiology, that counts. And they often don’t go hand in hand,” said Jon Peters, president of Beneo Inc. Morris Plains, N.J. “The ‘added’-versus-‘intrinsic’ discussion doesn’t take us anywhere,” he said. “After chewing and swallowing, the body cannot differentiate.”

What counts, he said, is the blood-glucose response to the food, whether it was made in a factory or plucked from a tree.

In the end, many suppliers of sweeteners maintain that the added-sugars designation is a distinction without a difference with little benefit to the consumer.

“The nutritional panel is complex enough for many consumers already,” said Peter Brown, a vice president for The Ingredient House, based in Pinehurst, N.C. “There must be educational support to help them understand the data presented.”

“The redesign of the Nutrition Facts panel to include added sugar will create opportunities for innovation in the dairy category,” said Wade Schmelzer, principal scientist at Cargill, Minneapolis. “It’s easy to envision innovations paralleling the approach in the snacks category a few years back to target 100-calorie snack packs.”

Flavored milk for children

One segment that’s received intense focus is flavored milks.

“The concern here is that the main consumers are school-aged children, and childhood obesity is a growing epidemic,” Peters said.

An 8-ounce serving of a traditional flavored milk can contain as many as 32 grams of sugar. Developers have chipped away at that total, lowering sugars to 22 to 24 grams per serving.

That said, “22 to 24 grams of sugar is still a large amount to consume in one serving,” Peters said. “The stretch goal would be to get these products down to the single-digit, or near-single-digit, level.”

Artificial high-intensity sweeteners are one route to take, but their poor reputation among parents hampers their utility.

“Replacing sugars with a high-potency sweetener leaves an overall lack of solids, and therefore the mouthfeel, taste and body that consumers expect [suffers],” Peters said.

A similar dilemma plagues frozen desserts and ice cream. The challenge here is that nutritive carbohydrates “have multiple functions in the products beyond sweetness,” Hopkinson explained. Added sugars make up about half the solids in ice cream, not only giving the products bulk and volume, but also depressing their freezing points so that the finished treats are actually soft enough to eat.

In the absence of those added sugars, processors need an alternative means of lowering the freezing point while also maintaining body, volume and sweetness. Milk solids can do some of the job, but if they become classified as added sugars, Hopkinson noted, we’re back to where we started. In that case, he said, “Milk protein isolates could be used along with a non-sugar solute such as glycerol to produce a reduced-‘added’-sugar frozen dessert.”

Consumers want it both ways

“The greatest challenge may be to produce no-sugar-added, all-natural products (such as ice cream) that cost the same as the former version,” Hopkinson said.

What makes the job so hard, he noted, are the multiple desired outcomes: reducing sugar and shortening the ingredient listing and going all-natural and not using artificial-sounding ingredients and controlling costs.

The irony, of course, is that the outcomes are growing more desirable and to more consumers. As Carol May, president, SweetLeaf, Gilbert, Ariz., noted, “The latest polls show that 68% of consumers want to reduce or eliminate sugars from their diets.” And yet those same consumers “do not want to use artificial sweeteners because of the many chemicals in them. They want natural sweeteners that are carefully extracted, monitored for premium quality and used properly.”

Thom King, president of Portland, Ore.-based Steviva Ingredients, knows this as well. Yet the upside he sees is that as consumers become savvier, “clean-label sugar reduction will give dairy processors a differential competitive advantage,” he said.

Next-generation alternatives

One place to look is at the current iterations of “natural” high-intensity sweeteners like stevia.

“Dramatic improvements in the sweetness quality of next-generation stevia sweeteners are enabling dairy manufacturers to achieve deeper sugar reductions than ever before,” Schmelzer said.

He advises dairy formulators to “spend focused time exploring details. With stevia and other high-potency sweeteners, it’s always surprising how slight shifts in concentration can have a dramatic impact on sweetness perception and flavor,” he said.

Stevia/sweetener blends help to smooth out the sharp edges characteristic of some unitary sweetener alternatives. For example, King said, “Novel sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit, along with low-intensity sweeteners such as erythritol and fructooligosaccharides, can maintain both the mouthfeel and flavor profile that consumers demand.”

Multitasking ingredients

Chicory root fiber can deliver sweetness, replace solids and boost mouthfeel and body in reduced-sugar applications like flavored milks.

Ross White, an applications manager at FMC, Philadelphia, noted that he and his colleagues have used hydrocolloids to “almost entirely replace added sugars in dairy recipes without sacrificing the indulgence factor of the end product.”

They’ve swapped carrageenan for all the sugar added to chocolate pudding to create a sweet and guiltless creamy dessert, he said.

Alternative approaches

Consider the sweetener question from another angle. Instead of replacing sugars added to dairy, why not get more from the sugars already there? That’s what Hopkinson suggests, and his tool for doing so is lactase enzyme.

“Although the ingredient is not itself sweet,” he explained, lactase splits lactose — with 16% sugar’s sweetness — into glucose and galactose, with 70% and 30% sugar’s sweetness, respectively.

 And though it can’t generate much more sweetness than 3% sucrose would in a chocolate milk, “this can be a 30% reduction in added sugar,” he said.

One operational drawback he noted is the need for time and tank space to allow the enzyme to do its work.

Maybe time and exposure alone will create a demand for dairy products with less sweetness. Schmelzer points to yogurt as a category where this is already happening. Icelandic yogurt is more sour and less sweet, he said. “And chocolate milks with lower sweetness and less sugar have been offered by dairy processors to school districts for years.”

But in retail, where sweet still sells, sugar reduction needs to be balanced with consumer taste expectations, he said.

As for that looming “added sugars” line, “It’s hard to tell how consumers will react until new packaging hits the marketplace,” said Catherine Barry, director of marketing for the National Honey Board in Firestone, Colo. “Think about the end goal. Taste has to be the main priority. The secondary concern is a clean label with all-natural and familiar ingredients. That’s hard to achieve when it’s time to pick a sweetener, but it’s not impossible.”