Reducing sugar: Blending natural sweeteners for optimized performance

August 29, 2019

Everyone loves sugar. Its flavor and performance are responsible for the eating experience we’ve come to expect from baked goods, confections, and beverages. Excessive sugar consumption, however, has plagued our society with health problems such as obesity and metabolic disease, and this is what is motivating consumers today to drastically cut their intake of sugar. According to proprietary consumer research from ingredient supplier Kerry (Beloit, WI) conducted in 2018, 46% of consumers strongly want to reduce their consumption of sugar, and 71% read the sugar content on ingredient labels.

In fact, according to USDA data, between 2000 and 2016, there was a 17% decline in daily consumption of sweetening agents such as refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. According to the group The Consumer Goods Forum1, in 2017, 68% of companies reported reducing sugar, a 12% increase compared to 2016. Kerry reports that, as a way to manage sugar consumption, 28% of its survey respondents are opting for reduced-sugar foods and beverages, and 19% are switching to alternative sweetening agents.

Such movement is also impacting the product claims companies are making. For instance, the number of “no added sugar” claims on products grew 2.6% in 2018 compared to the year prior, and the number of “low/no/reduced sugar” claims grew 45% in 2017 compared to 2012, according to data from Mintel2. The number of “no artificial sweeteners” claims also grew 4.4% in 2018 compared to the year before, according to Nielsen data cited in the Kerry report3, showing that consumers not only want less sugar, but want alternatives that are clean label and natural.

If a product calls for less sugar, but the same sweetness, a natural, high-intensity sweetener such as stevia can solve the sweetness issue; however, replicating sugar’s functionality is no easy task.

“Emerging sweeteners are always compared and evaluated against [sugar’s] performance,” says Akshay Kumar Anugu, PhD, associate, global sweetener development, for Ingredion (Westchester, IL).

Anugu explains that replacing sugar with high-potency sweeteners is challenging for many reasons, such as the fact that differences in the binding ability of sweeteners at T1R2/T1R3 receptors, which are humans’ receptors for sweet flavors, can dictate different flavor delivery and mouthfeel properties, depending on the sweetener.

Says Anugu: “Sucrose not only provides sweet taste, but also imparts functional properties such as bulking/mouthfeel. In baked goods, sucrose increases the protein denaturation and starch gelatinization temperatures, acts as a tenderizer by retarding and restricting gluten formation, and also contributes to the volume. In ice cream, sucrose influences freezing point and controls ice crystal formation. In bars, it controls hardness and maintains microbial and physical stability during the shelf life.”

Also, when you ask consumers, not all consider sugar a bad word. In fact, in surveying consumer perceptions, Kerry found that 59% prefer sugar, compared to the 22% who prefer stevia. So, even as consumers may want to limit their consumption of sugar, they also have a positive opinion of it as a sweetener because it is a familiar ingredient.

The challenge now for suppliers and manufacturers is to devise products which give consumers what they want in terms of sugar reduction as well as flavor, all while using alternative ingredients. Their hope is that consumers will begin to recognize products like stevia and choose them because they like the taste.

Given these challenges, today’s sweetener suppliers and manufacturers have developed a number of creative solutions for clean-label sugar reduction. Much of this work involves finding the right combination of high-intensity sweeteners, and bulking agents, to replicate the flavors and textures we get with sucrose.



The most ubiquitous natural sweetener on the market today is stevia (Stevia rebaudiana)—more specifically, the steviol glycoside Rebaudioside A (Reb A).

Stevia is significantly sweeter than sugar and is therefore very effective at clean-label sugar reduction, particularly in beverage applications. “Early on, stevia was first embraced by manufacturers in product categories that were on the front lines of the sugar-reduction fallout—chiefly beverages, including juices, flavored waters, and sodas,” explains Andy Ohmes, global director of high-intensity sweeteners, Cargill (Minneapolis, MN). “Stevia leaf extracts have become so popular in these categories that close to one in four global beverage launches now contains stevia-based sweeteners.”

Beverages are a big sugar-reduction target because carbonated soft drinks and juices are notoriously high in sugar. In fact, in Kerry’s consumer survey, carbonated soft drinks were perceived to contain the highest sugar content. That means that consumers will either switch to unsweetened beverages or seek out alternatives, which they hope will be comparable to the real thing.

Meeting this expectation poses some challenges where stevia is concerned. Alone, stevia’s most prominent steviol glycoside, Reb A, will not help formulators eliminate sugar entirely because it has a bitter aftertaste and affects sensory characteristics such as mouthfeel.

At lower sugar-reduction levels, Reb A isn’t as problematic. “Formulators were able to achieve 30%-50% sugar reduction with Reb A in several beverage applications without impacting taste,” says Anugu. “However, Reb A can impart undesirable sensory characteristics, especially above 50% sugar replacement, limiting its application.”

For this reason, the stevia industry’s push to commercialize other, minor steviol glycosides such as Reb M and Reb D, which sidestep some of the undesirable tastes and sensory characteristics of Reb A, has the potential to make a huge impact on sugar reduction. Most often, when aimed at lowering a product’s sugar profile today, these minor glycosides are used either in combination with Reb A or with other steviol glycosides.

  1. Deloitte. “The Consumer Goods Forum: Annual Health & Wellness Progress Report, 2017”
  2. Mintel. “Trends in sugar, sugar reduction, and sweeteners: Prepared for the 34th annual Sweetener Symposium.”
  3. Nielsen xAOC Sales Units. 52 weeks ending June 16, 2018. Analyzed among 207 billion units.