Sweeteners continue to dominate headlines, from the latest sugar-free alternatives to disagreement over the U.S. sugar program.
As sugar producers, farmers and the federal government battle it out on Capitol Hill over the coming Farm Bill, sugar-free sweetener suppliers are busy developing new products in research and development laboratories.
As a building block of almost all bakery formulas, sweeteners perform a multitude of functions, such as enhancing flavor, providing bulk and giving bakery products a golden brown color. Sweeteners provide endless debate on topics ranging from health and policy issues to supply and cost concerns.
The U.S. sugar program is extremely unique compared to other commodity programs. Whereas other commodities operate in a market-oriented structure, U.S. sugar policy requires the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to balance supply with domestic demand.
Depending on who you ask, this program is either severely flawed or perfectly executed. Sugarcane and sugarbeet farmers, as well as processors, refiners and suppliers favor the current setup of the program. Food manufacturers, including many high-volume bakers, are rallying for program modification on the 2007 Farm Bill.
USDA Agriculture Secretary Mike Johans outlined proposed changes to the sugar program earlier this year when the 2007 Farm Bill was proposed. The proposed Farm Bill seeks to “revise the sugar program to operate at no net cost to taxpayers by balancing supply and demand for sugar through domestic marketing allotments and the tariff rate quota on sugar imports,” the proposed bill says.
The USDA’s solution is to continue the sugar price support program, but eliminate the provision that requires the suspension of marketing allotments when sugar imports are projected to exceed 1.532 million short tons. “The objective of the Administration’s proposal would be to continue to maintain domestic sugar prices near historical levels while eliminating the Federal cost of the sugar price support program,” the proposed Farm Bill states.
The proposed Farm Bill allows the Federal Government to meet future trade obligations, mainly the full implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which on Jan. 1, 2008, would eliminate customs duties for sweetener trade between the United States and Mexico.
The next few months will prove crucial to the future direction of the U.S. Farm Bill. While both sides debate the merits of proposed changes to U.S. sugar policy, suppliers of sugar-free sweeteners are basking in the glow of a changing customer base that demands more healthful options.
“It is interesting to note that last year’s shortage of sugar in the United States came at a time when demand for ‘reduced sugar’ food products was extending beyond its origins in the cereal sector to other product categories, such as bakery foods,” says Debra Bryant, PALATINIT of America’s director, business development and technical services.
These divergent movements have created a slew of opportunities for bakers seeking to improve the healthfulness of their products.
Reducing the sugar
The history of sugar-free bakery foods has had its peaks and valleys. In the last few years, these products rebounded because of the intense spotlight placed on rising obesity and diabetes rates.
“Heightened media and government attention around consumer health issues, such as obesity and diabetes, over the last year or so has prompted formulators across many food categories to look to sugar-free sweeteners as a means of offering consumers healthier alternatives to their favorite foods,” says Ron Deis, SPI Polyols Inc.’s vice president, technology.
The recent increased demand for sugar-free bakery products started with the low-carbohydrate craze. When this short-lived trend fizzled, the buzz surrounding the glycemic index kept sugar-free products in the spotlight. The glycemic index ranks carbohydrates according to their effects on blood glucose levels.
The glycemic index has been talked about a lot within U.S. food industry circles, but few food manufacturers have based new products on the glycemic index, which has yet to establish a stronghold in the United States for many reasons.
The glycemic index is confusing. Whereas low-carbohydrate diets succeeded temporarily because of their simple message: carbohydrates are bad; the low glycemic index ranks carbohydrates on a scale of 0 to 100.
In addition, many dieticians doubt the credibility of the glycemic index. For example, foods such as potatoes and breads rank higher on the glycemic index than jellybeans.
Despite these challenges, many in the industry feel it’s only a matter of time before U.S. consumers and food manufacturers adopt the glycemic index.
“It is important to understand that glycemic index, or glycemic response, is not just a trendy buzz phrase, but a key tool in proper weight management,” Bryant says. “With the term ‘glycemic index’ appearing increasingly in popular magazines covering topics, such as nutrition, fitness and lifestyle news, as well as in dietary guidelines, we feel it is starting to resonate not only with diabetic consumers, but also with a growing number of consumers who simply are health conscious.”
High-volume bakers have many options for replacing sugar in bakery products, including sugar alcohols, polydextorse, maltodextrins and high-intensity sweeteners. A delicate balance of form and function between multiple ingredients must be used when replacing sugar.
Popular sugar-free formulations include a combination of bulking agents and high-intensity sweeteners. This blend of ingredients provides both bulk and sweetness.
“A number of polyols (sugar alcohols) can be used as sugar replacers, including Isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, sorbitol, xlitol, erythritol and mannitol,” Bryant says. “These are carbohydrates whose low or non-digestibility will have a lower impact on blood glucose levels than regular sugar.”
However, sugar alcohols do not provide the same functionality of sugar, and therefore formulation changes must be made to replace the sugar in bakery food formulas. The following bulking agents commonly are used in the baking industry:
Isomalt-This 1:1 bulk sugar replacer is ideal for cookies, hard biscuits, cream-filled wafers, whipped masses and baking premixes. It features a sugar-like flavor, but contains only half the calories of sugar, Bryant says.
Maltitol–Used as a 1:1 replacement for sugar in bakery products, maltitol has about 90 percent the sweetness of sucrose and 2.1 calories per gram, Deis says.
Maltitol and polyglycitol syrups–Used to replace corn syrups.
Xylitol–A naturally occurring bulk sweetener common in confectionary applications, this polyol mainly is used in the baking industry for toppings and fillings.
Polydextrose–This polysacchride mimics sugar and is ideal for reduced-sugar, sugar-free and no- sugar-added products. Polydextrose is not sweet, so it is used with high-intensity sweeteners.
Lactitol–This sugar replacer is ideal for crisp bakery products, such as cookies, and is about 40 percent as sweet as sugar. Its melting point also makes it ideal for cakes because of its ability to trap air.
Replacing sugar in bakery formulas, regardless of the alternative used, is complex. Bakers often use multiple sugars in traditional bakery products, so replacing sugar with multiple alternative sweeteners significantly modifies baking properties.