Meet the Expert
Who: Rachel Gwinn
What: Food product development scientist
Where: Campden BRI
The food and drink industry is constantly moving forward with innovative products and new ingredients. Ever-increasing demand for healthy alternatives, legislation and safety concerns have all added further pressure to identify new ways of delivering nutritious items that meet the needs of the modern-day consumer.
Sugar (sucrose) is always in the spotlight, whether it relates to obesity, diabetes or tooth decay, and while artificial sweeteners are now commonplace, the search continues to find natural alternatives, as many consumers have negative perceptions of refined sugar and artificial sweeteners. But finding such a replacement isn’t that easy.
Three sugar alternatives
As part of its research into the use of emerging ingredients, food science and research organisation Campden BRI looked at the potential for lucuma, yacon syrup and mesquite flour, ingredients which were identified via blogs and online recipes for use as alternatives to sugar.
Lucuma fruit is native to Southern America and has a flavour profile consisting of caramel and malty notes. Sources describe the taste as somewhere between sweet potato and maple. It is used in ice cream, raw soups, chocolate applications and cereal bars.
Yacon is a perennial plant from the Andean region that produces ‘fruit’ in the form of edible tubular roots. The syrup has similar physical and sensory characteristics to honey, but with a malty sweetness which was compared to molasses. Yacon is reportedly used in chocolate and peppermint bars.
The mesquite tree is native to Mexico and the southern areas of the United States. It is regarded as a valuable crop in these areas as it is one of the few nitrogen-fixing plants in desert environments. Flour derived from the plant is described as having a nutty taste with notes of caramel and mocha, and aromatic notes of coconut.
What is their potential?
The flavour profiles and potential claims based on reported nutritional properties for these alternative sweeteners were investigated, highlighting the differences to conventional sugar.
There were challenges with each ingredient – fundamentally, the addition of flavour attributes other than sweetness.
A feasibility study was undertaken to investigate how the three ingredients would affect the taste, texture and appearance of a final product – in this case, dairy-free drinks.
Several nutrition claims were achieved with the new recipes, including ‘reduced energy’ and ‘reduced sugar.’ However, the sweeteners also changed the end product’s sensory and physical properties – dried fruit aftertastes, powdery textures and bitterness were noted by the trained sensory panel.
Additionally, the reduction in sugar from using these alternative sweeteners – with mesquite showing a particularly significant reduction of 78% – was achieved at the expense of a drop in overall sweetness and the unwanted addition of other flavours. The levels of bitterness in mesquite flour can also vary between groves and even trees, resulting in an inconsistency in flavour profile.
Research suggests that the sweeteners would not work with some flavours. For instance, when used with a strawberry-flavoured drink the taste and appearance of the final product were not acceptable, but the sugar alternatives were unobtrusive in a chocolate beverage.
A further issue with mesquite flour relates to its regulation – a factor not uncommon to ‘new’ ingredients. While it has GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) approval for use in the USA, it is currently listed as an unauthorised novel food in the EU. Approval from the EFSA/FSA would be necessary to use mesquite flour in products in the region.
There are clear benefits in employing alternative sweeteners, as highlighted by the nutritional research, but substituting them for traditional sugar in product formulations often requires more detailed experimentation.