- In 2016, Public Health England set a target for the food industry (including restaurants, pubs, retailers and manufacturers) to cut sugar by 20% in 10 categories as part of an effort to tackle childhood obesity. Figures on the progress made so far by the out-of-home sector are expected this year.
- Chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have led the way for sugar reduction in the industry. The pair called for an extension of the sugar tax and for a 9pm watershed for junk food advertising on TV in a Commons enquiry into childhood obesity last year.
- According to the Food Safety Agency’s most recent Public Attitudes Tracker, the number-one food concern for Brits is sugar content. Since 2010, there’s been a 13% rise in the number of people paying attention to the amount of sugar contained in their meals.
Sugar – the white refined kind – is currently public enemy number one in the food and drink arena, with health officials telling us to cut back radically on its use.
While consumers know that overconsumption of refined sugar can lead to a range of health issues, however, many don't want to give up on sweet flavours entirely.
This backlash against sugar, coupled with the reluctance to discard sweet-tasting foods from our diets, has led to innovation over elimination: polyols (sweet, low-calorie carbohydrates) like xylitol and erythritol, as well as plant-based sweeteners like stevia, agave syrup and coconut sugar, are just some of the products retailers are now substituting into recipes.
But as Bake Off finalist Ruby Bhogal, who has created a special menu for Searcys at the Gherkin, says, while supermarkets now offer a “plethora of alternatives” to refined sugar, for some reason healthier sweeteners have taken longer to reach the foodservice sector.
Change is happening, however, with chefs beginning to embrace the sugar-free revolution and experimenting with alternatives to create indulgent, reduced-calorie desserts.
The newly opened plant-based fast-food restaurant Miami Burger uses erythritol to sweeten its dessert bars, while other raw food restaurants are employing natural ingredients such as dates, coconut sugar or nut butters to make desserts more toothsome.
Gelf Alderson, head chef at River Cottage, has even teamed up with Pukka Herbs to create a rich chocolate tart sweetened with maple syrup and Pukka Herbs' Ginger Joy – a blend of herbs and spices such as turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger.
Tom Halford, head chef at Miami Burger in Reading, uses erythritol to sweeten his Luxe Hazelnut Chocolate Bar: “Our Luxe Hazelnut Chocolate Bar is a rich, organic, sweet chocolate mixed with hazelnuts, cornflakes and skimmed coconut milk. We make it with organic cocoa powder mixed with skimmed coconut milk and blended raw hazelnuts, which are melted down with a small amount of vegan butter and erythritol. It's then folded into crunched cornflakes, left to set and topped with more nuts. Erythritol brings the sweetness without the naughtiness and we consider it the best sugar alternative as it has a remarkably similar taste to cane sugar without the calories. There's no foaming, no artificial taste or zingy hit on the tongue either.”
Benn Hodges, head chef of gourmet takeaway company EatFirst in London, uses honey and stevia to sweeten his dessert of cherry and polenta cake with coconut Chantilly and cherry sauce: “The cherry and polenta cake is made with British cherries, polenta, olive oil, honey, eggs, coconut yoghurt, ground almond, baking powder, cocoa nibs, and orange blossom water and orange juice. I mix the cherries with 50g of polenta and set aside. The honey, olive oil and yoghurt are whisked together before the eggs are mixed in one at a time. The remaining ingredients and the cherry and polenta mix are then stirred in until combined before the cake mixture is baked in a tin in the oven for 45 minutes. The cooked cake is served doused in a cherry sauce, made with poached, sieved (to remove the skins) and sliced cherries, accompanied by a quenelle of coconut Chantilly cream. The coconut Chantilly is made by whisking coconut milk powder and stevia into coconut yoghurt. Stevia and honey are a great way to add sweetness without the use of refined sugar, which, as we know, has many negative health implications. Honey adds a beautiful sweet richness to the cake and the stevia works perfectly to sweeten the glaze. The combination leaves with you a luxurious cake that’s as good as using traditional sugars.”
Ruby Bhogal, Bake Off finalist, uses agave syrup to sweeten a yoghurt sorbet to accompany a dessert of pineapple carpaccio, which is being served at Searcys at the Gherkin this month: “To make the dish, we slice pineapple extremely thinly, extracting a clear juice from the leftover pineapple, which is used to make a light syrup infused with mint and chilli. I then make a sorbet to serve with the pineapple combining 0% yoghurt and agave syrup. It's served all together with a few berries. Agave syrup was used in this dessert due to the difference in sweetness from normal sugar. I know there have been a lot of studies to dispel any major differences between the two, and even some that go as far as saying it is bad for you. However, because of the concentrated levels of sweetness, you tend to only use a fraction of the syrup as you would do refined sugar. I often like to look for natural alternatives to use within baking or desserts, showing that processed or refined goods needn't always be our first choice.”