CHICAGO — Nature’s Path, Richmond, BC, built its organic breakfast cereal and snack business around keeping sugar content as low as possible. Natural sweetness is how the company describes its approach.

Its Heritage Flakes are made with a blend of ancient grains and include a touch of honey and cane sugar. The Millet Rice Flakes are sweetened with pear juice concentrate, while the Whole Os rely on pomegranate juice concentrate. The company now is rolling out a no-added-sugar granola that contains 4 grams of sugar per serving. Date powder provides the sweetness and, when it is hydrated, assists with binding the whole grain rolled oats with other ingredients.

“People are worried about the amount of sugar they are consuming,” said Arjan Stephens, general manager. “Science has shown a clear link between a diet high in added sugars and chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Our no-added-sugar granolas are an easy way of reducing your sugar intake, without sacrificing taste or nutrition.

“Dates are also high in fiber, which is fantastic for digestive health. And their fiber content makes them a low-glycemic food, so you can enjoy the sweet taste of no-added-sugar granola without a blood-sugar spike.”

While sugar is one of the simplest pantry ingredients — as it is obtained from sugarcane or sugar beets through just a few steps (extraction, evaporation and drying) — it may be one of the most controversial. Its reputation is one of being empty carbohydrate calories, with wellness advocates encouraging consumers to avoid it.

Recent ADM Outside Voice research showed 8 out of 10 consumers are trying to reduce sugar in their diets. The challenge for food and beverage manufacturers is sugar is more than just sweet.

Sugar not only provides a natural, well-rounded sweet taste, it functions as a flavor carrier, contributes to appearance, enhances mouthfeel and provides texture. It may serve as a nutrition source for microorganisms during fermentation, and it possesses humectant properties to assist with extending shelf life.

“There are so many functions beyond sugar being sweet,” said Eleonora Lahud, corporate chef, ASR Group, West Palm Beach, Fla. “That’s why sugar cannot be replaced with just one ingredient.”

Keeping it simple

Nature’s Path’s market position is about choosing better natural sweeteners, including applesauce, banana, honey, maple syrup and molasses. If more function is necessary, the company opts for blends that may include cane sugar, coconut sugar or brown rice syrup. The company shies away from high-intensity sweeteners, even those considered natural, such as monk fruit and stevia, and focuses on minimally processed, whole food sweeteners.

“If an ingredient can’t be found in the home kitchen or pantry, it can be a sign of processing or compromise to consumers,” said Sarah Diedrich, marketing director-sweetening solutions and fibers, ADM, Chicago. “This raises the bar for included sweeteners, which need to be either familiar or justified for use in certain products to be fully accepted.”

Abby’s Better Nut Butter, Charlotte, NC, uses the sweetening power of whole food ingredients and only uses fruits or honey to sweeten its spreads. The cashew nut butter, for example, is made with dried coconut, while the almond variety is formulated with honey.

Nature's Path products featuring natural sweetenersAlthough honey has been around for thousands of years, its use continues to grow as new demands from consumers put natural sweeteners in the spotlight. The increased popularity of honey also has spurred innovation in the industry, including the use of more mono-floral honey varietals and dried honey.

Dried honey is made by dehydrating liquid honey and, in some cases, adding processing aids to prevent caking and make it more flowable. This has opened doors for premiumization of everyday foods. A drawback to honey is because it comes from an animal, it is not permissible in vegan formulations.

“Mono-floral honeys gives formulators the ability to craft unique and specific flavor profiles based solely on the type of honey used,” said Catherine Barry, director of marketing, National Honey Board, Longmont, Colo. “We find this works exceptionally well in products such as granolas, where a manufacturer can use buckwheat honey in a base granola formula to impart a robust, earthy flavor and dark color. With the same base formula, they can use an orange blossom honey for a lighter-in-appearance-and-flavor product with a hint of citrus.”

Most people think of sweetness when they think of honey, but there is also a tartness due to the ingredient’s acidity. The flavor profile helps balance flavors without overwhelming them with sweetness. The acidity (average pH 3.91) also helps inhibit mold growth in some applications. Because honey is up to 50% sweeter than sugar, it may allow a product developer to reduce the overall amount of sweetening ingredients used in a formula.

Another natural viscous sweetener is agave syrup, also known as agave nectar. It is produced from the juice contained in the core of the blue agave plant and is light in color with a neutral taste, smooth texture and notable sweetness. Agave syrup naturally contains a high percentage of fructose, making it about 25% sweeter than sugar. It is a good substitute for honey in vegan formulations.

Filtering determines the agave nectar’s flavor and color. As a general rule, one cup of sugar may be replaced with two-thirds cup agave, along with a minor adjustment to added liquids. Depending on the application, agave nectar may add richness, as well as enhance other flavors.

Two other pourable and pumpable viscous natural sweeteners include maple syrup and molasses. Concentrated fruit slurries also qualify. Food and beverage manufacturers appreciate the ease of working with such liquid sweeteners, as they can be metered and dispensed for quick dissolution. They are also more sanitary than their dry counterparts, as particles do not linger in the air. They have varying degrees of sweetness, with some contributing color, flavor and even nutrition to an application.

Pure maple syrup is made by concentrating the slightly sweet sap of the sugar maple tree. The sap is boiled into syrup, with color and flavor varying by time of harvest. Light amber maple syrup, for example, is extracted early in the season and, as the name suggests, has a very light golden amber color with mild maple flavor. As the harvest season progresses, the sap gets darker and more flavorful. It is the end-of-season syrups that are mostly used as commercial ingredients. These full-bodied syrups have intense maple flavor and a dark color.

Molasses is a natural byproduct of the manufacture of granulated sugar from sugar beet or sugarcane. It is the thick, brown syrup that remains after the extracted juice is boiled then cooled to form sugar crystals. The molasses may go through many boils, each time sugar crystals get removed and the syrup thickens, concentrating the flavor and nutrients while intensifying in color.

Blackstrap is the darkest molasses available. It has a bittersweet flavor and is loaded with vitamins and minerals. Use is limited by its strong earthy flavor notes and dark color (it is a popular animal feed ingredient). It is less sweet than sugar and is usually used with some sugar or other sweeteners. Molasses sometimes is added more for flavor and color than sweetness.

Chobani yogurt sweetened with monk fruitHigh-intensity options

Several high-intensity sweeteners are currently considered natural. Monk fruit and allulose are used in the new Chobani Zero Sugar yogurt. To make the product, Chobani, Norwich, NY, starts with milk that has been filtered to reduce lactose, the naturally occurring milk sugars. Then the company relies on natural fermentation methods with select yogurt cultures to consume the remaining sugar. The sweetness comes naturally from the fruit and flavors, along with the monk fruit and allulose.

Allulose is a sweetener that tastes and functions like sucrose and is in the family of rare sugars, which are sugars that occur in small quantities in nature. It is absorbed by the body, but not metabolized, making it nearly calorie free. Allulose is one of the many types of monosaccharides that exist in nature in small quantities and can be found in certain fruits, including figs, raisins and jackfruit. Allulose has texture and performance behavior similar to sugar, providing comparable bulk, sweetness and functionality.

Monk fruit, also known as luo han guo, is a small, vine-grown, subtropical fruit that gets its intense sweetness from naturally occurring antioxidants called mogrosides, which are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Monk fruit juice concentrate is one of the most common ingredient formats and is about 15 times sweeter than sugar. It is made by crushing the fruit then infusing the crushed fruit with hot water to release its natural sweet juice. The sweet infusion is then filtered to clarify and stabilize the monk fruit juice.

Stevia is currently the most popular natural high-intensity sweetener. Stevia leaves contain dozens of sweet components; however, two of the best-tasting, Reb M and Reb D, comprise less than 1% of the stevia leaf. Suppliers in the space continue to invest in technologies to differentiate products and make them more affordable.

In many instances, blends of these three high-intensity sweeteners provide the most desirable sweetening curve. And sometimes, just a touch of sugar is what is needed to make the taste complete, naturally.