CHICAGO — With so many 2022 food trend forecasts including sugar reduction, it’s no surprise products featuring no- and low-sugar claims are gaining momentum. Piggybacking off this movement is a rise in packaged products featuring a keto-friendly statement. While keto is not legally defined, most keto dietary plans suggest consuming less than 30 grams of net carbohydrates per day. To put that in perspective, a 12-oz can of sugar-sweetened soda contains about 40 grams of net carbohydrates.

Eliminating sugar lowers net carbohydrates, which is not a legally defined term. It refers to carbohydrates the body digests and includes sugars naturally found in everything from fruit to milk, as well as caloric carbohydrates such as wheat flour, oatmeal and other grains. Most calculations are made by taking the total carbohydrates in a food and subtracting fiber and sugar alcohols.

“The jury is still out,” said Alex Malamatinas, founder and managing partner, Melitas, New York, a venture capital fund that invests in early-stage food and beverage companies with a focus on better-for-you products. “Some consumers prefer absolutely no sugar and are looking for alternatives, through stevia, erythritol, etc. Others prefer regular sugar, just in lower amounts.”

Condiment craze

Yo Mama’s Foods Co., Clearwater, Fla., takes a varied approach to lowering net carbohydrates in its keto-certified ketchups and tomato-based sauces. All its products have no added sugars; however, the tomato base inherently contains carbohydrates. The marinara sauces are made with tomatoes to not require the addition of any sweetener. Both the ketchup and barbecue sauce lines include monk fruit.

Sweet Baby Ray’s, Chicago, has a no-sugar-added barbecue sauce in its line. By using allulose and sucralose, a two-tablespoon serving contains only 1 gram of sugar that is inherent to the tomatoes.

“Removing sugar (from barbecue sauce) requires a toolbox approach to build back lost functionality and prevent off flavors, bitter notes or other less than desirable taste experiences,” said Anu Kampurath, associate principal scientist, Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “Sucralose, a zero-calorie sweetener, provides that sweetness missing from the removal of sugar or nutritive sweeteners, and allulose, a low-calorie sweetening ingredient, provides both bulk and sweetness to round out the taste profile. Allulose behaves like sugar and provides bulking and sweetness in food and beverage products while contributing only 10% of the calories of sugar.”

Cutting out the grains

Grain-based foods present ingredient interaction challenges when formulating for a keto-friendly label, as not only is sugar being eliminated, so are the non-sugar carbohydrates, namely wheat flour. As a result, the addition of proteins and fibers may be necessary.

“Pea protein is often higher in nutrient density than the carbohydrates it replaces in products such as breakfast cereal, but it does bring a flavor profile that is not typical for classic cereal consumers,” said Casey McCormick, director of product development, Sweegen, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. “While flavor maskers can help with this off flavor, the development tool most appreciated by consumers is to bring a high level of sweetness that will effectively ‘mask’ the pea protein.

“Monk fruit is often paired with stevia to deliver a higher level of sweetness in the finished good. Using these together can deliver the most sweetness without overemphasizing the linger that can be observed when they are used individually at higher levels.”

Retailer Aldi, Batavia, Ill., offers private label keto chocolate chip cookies that have zero grams net carbs per serving, along with 13 grams of fat, 3 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber. Almond flour is the first ingredient. Erythritol and stevia deliver solids and sweetness. The chocolate chips rely on inulin and erythritol.

Benton's Keto Chocolate Chip Cookie

“Classic chocolate chip cookies utilize gluten from flour to create a structure to the cookie and sugar to help build out the bulk,” Mr. McCormick said. “Almond flour and egg whites together can help rebuild the structure, while inulin and erythritol can create the bulk along with compensating for some of the missing sweetness. A stevia ingredient with a higher sweetness equivalence can provide the remaining gap in sweetness.”

Kyle Krause, North American regional product manager, Beneo Inc., Parsippany, NJ, said, “Inulin — and its shorter-fructose-chain counterpart, oligofructose — work very well in chocolate chip cookies to provide a source of proven prebiotic fiber to support digestive health. Powder and liquid versions are available to meet any process requirements. These ingredients differ in terms of degree of polymerization, thus can be chosen accordingly to help with the type of texture wanted in such a cookie: soft or crispy.”

With some sweet treats, chewy is the target texture. The Clif Bar & Co., Emeryville, Calif., now offers Luna Keto Brownie Bites, which were formulated to have a texture that mimics a classic, fudge brownie.

“Brownies are very dependent on the combination of high levels of fat and sugar, so removing the sugar entirely makes getting this balance a very large challenge,” Mr. McCormick said. “Erythritol can help replace the bulk that sugar provides, and high-quality stevia can replace much of the sweetness.

“To make the sweetness from stevia more sugar-like, the quality of chocolate should be considered. If a high-quality chocolate is used, there are likely higher levels of theobromine present, which also impart some bitterness in the finished product. Utilizing natural flavor compounds that block this bitterness from being perceived can help the sweetness from stevia be perceived even more strongly.”

The first five ingredients in Luna Keto Brownie Bites are cassava fiber, almond flour, dates, soy protein concentrate and sugar-free chips, which are made with unsweetened chocolate, erythritol, cocoa butter, sunflower lecithin and stevia. The formulation includes additional unsweetened chocolate and alkalized cocoa, along with erythritol and stevia. One pack contains 140 to 150 calories with 9 grams of fat, 6 grams of protein, 11 grams of fiber, 6 grams of net carbohydrates and zero added sugar.

“Erythritol is not a stand-alone ingredient in bakery products because it misses some of sugar’s key functional properties,” said Tim Christensen, certified master baker, Cargill, Minneapolis. “While it does contribute sweetness and bulk, and helps lower water activity, erythritol doesn’t give the spread we expect in some baked goods nor will it contribute to browning.”

That spread is not necessary in a product such as Aldi’s Simply Nature Keto Coconut Clusters. The bite-size snacks are a blend of coconut, quinoa, pumpkin and sunflower seeds all enrobed in dark chocolate. The latter is sweetened with sugar, requiring labels to state a serving contains 1 gram of added sugar. The rest of the sweetness comes from erythritol and inulin.

“Erythritol and inulin could be used to provide a bit of sweetness, or formulators could use them to create a no-sugar-added chocolate,” Mr. Christensen said. “Erythritol is a good sweetener choice for reduced- and no-sugar-added chocolate. As compared to most polyols, it is non-hygroscopic and highly heat stable, just like the sugar it replaces, making higher conching temperatures possible for enhanced chocolate flavor development. In contrast, most other polyols can’t handle the heat. Chocolate made with these sweeteners will require lower conching temperatures and more time to remove the volatile compounds found in cocoa beans.

“Soluble fibers like inulin are often used to counterbalance erythritol’s cooling effect. Erythritol has a high negative heat of solution, creating a cooling sensation when dissolved in the mouth. This cold sensation happens because erythritol absorbs energy from its surroundings as it dissolves. Soluble fibers like inulin have a positive heat of solution, making them perfect partners in many applications.”

Mr. Christensen said that because inulin is less temperature tolerant than erythritol, it is best to conch first, then add inulin as the mixture cools. Alternatively, formulators can reduce the conching temperature.

“Maltitol is another polyol sometimes used in keto-friendly bakery applications.” Mr. Christensen said. “With a sugar equivalency value (SEV) of 85 to 90, it’s a little sweeter than erythritol, which has an SEV of around 65.”

Corbion, Lenexa, Kan., has developed a keto-friendly yeast leavened bread. Key ingredients are resistant starch, wheat protein isolate, vital wheat gluten, oat fiber, yeast, oil/shortening, salt, inulin and enzymes.

“The main challenge we faced when developing the keto bread was maintaining desirable bread characteristics, such as appearance, texture and flavor, when minimizing carbohydrate-based ingredients and using high amounts of proteins and fiber-containing ingredients without adding any sugar,” said Yanling Yin, director of bakery application.

Corbion’s enzyme-based ingredients helped improve dough structure, e.g., higher loaf volume, finer cell structure, etc. They also enhanced bread crust color and provided some sweet flavor without significantly changing the total net carbohydrate content.