Aspartame, saccharin, and other synthetically formulated ingredients are often used to sweeten diet or sugar-free foods and drinks like biscuits and carbonated drinks. While these artificial sweeteners have been rigorously tested by health authorities, like the European Food Safety Authority, and are deemed safe at normal consumption levels, some consumers prefer to avoid them. This preference and the desire to reduce added sugars are driving a trend toward natural, non-sugar sweetening options, including stevia extract and monk fruit.1
The use of certain artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol and xylitol, should be carefully considered depending on who the target audience of the food product is. These sweeteners can cause laxative effects if consumed excessively, therefore their usage may not be suitable in products consumed by the very young or those with gastro-intestinal issues.2
How do they work?
Sugar replacements are sometimes called non-nutritive sweeteners or intense sweeteners, due to their composition and relative sweetness compared to common sugars like table sugar, honey, or fructose.
These substitutes typically yield no or low calories. In addition, since they may be many times sweeter than sugar, they can be added in very small amounts—they have much more sweetening power per calorie. The sweetness of food is also an important consideration: the UK government recommends that the sweetness of food should also be gradually reduced in addition to the sugar content, as this allows for individuals’ palates to gradually adjust to less sweet food.3
Monk fruit comes from the Luo han guo plant, which is native to Southeast Asia. It has no calories, is approximately 300 times sweeter than sugar, and like stevia, is generally recognised as safe to consume.
Whole monk fruit is not widely available. However, you can find powdered extract which is made by peeling, seeding, and squeezing the fruit. It’s also used as an ingredient in low- calorie versions of table top sweeteners, beverages, baked goods, yoghurts, sauces, and desserts.
As with stevia extract, a little monk fruit goes a long way. Take time to experiment and find the right amount to provide the ideal level of sweetness.
Stevia extract comes from the leaves of a South American plant. The extract is virtually calorie-free, approximately 250 times sweeter than sugar, and generally recognized as safe to consume.
Powdered stevia and stevia blends are becoming increasingly available in the UK, and you can find many products sweetened with stevia extract, including soft drinks, sports drinks, yoghurts, and desserts.
However, it’s also easy to prepare your own. Just keep a plant in the kitchen, and snip a leaf to use as a garnish in drinks or on desserts. Or, dry the leaves, steep them in hot water, and strain to create a calorie-free syrup that you can add to foods and drinks. Remember, since stevia is so much sweeter than sugar, you only need a little to get the flavour you want.
When you’re thinking about replacing sugars with other sweeteners, remember that taste is not the only consideration. Sugars play an important functional role in some foods. In foods and beverages where sugars don’t play a critical functional role, it’s easier to reduce or replace them. You may need to make some adjustments to whipping time or cooking times or temperatures, but the lack of sugar won’t affect the structural integrity of the food (see The Function of Sugar article).
For example, in egg-based desserts, like custards, or in whipping applications like creams and meringues, you can reduce sugars or completely replace them with other sweeteners. However, sugars play an important structural role in baked goods. Alternative sweeteners won’t feed the yeast fermentation that’s critical for the crumb structure of cakes and breads, so you can’t completely remove or replace the sugar. Instead, start with a 10% reduction, and adjust until you’re happy with the results.
Tell Me More
Many consumers are looking to limit sugars in their diet and appreciate transparency. Why not help them out?
You can help by displaying front of pack nutrition information on menus, cups, wrappers, or other containers. In line with EU guidelines, nutrition information displayed must either state the energy value (kJ and kcal) alone or energy value (kJ and kcal) plus amounts (in grams) of fat, saturates, sugars and salt.
Those who are looking for the information will appreciate your support. It may help guide them to the menu choices that are right for them, or reassure them that their old favourites fall within their needs.
Contact us if you’d like more information on the work we’ve done to reduce sugar and calories in our products.
- Shoup, 2017
- NHS Choices, The Truth About Sweeteners, 2016
- PHE, Sugar Reduction: Achieving the 20%, 2017