How to use natural sweeteners as an alternative to granulated white sugar
Ben Carnevale, May 2018
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a significant rise in the demand for natural alternative sweeteners in the products we make, buy and consume. Some of these natural alternatives are well-known like honey and maple syrup, while others such as palm sugar and monk fruit, are less familiar to consumers.
This article breaks down the major players in the alternative sweetener space and useful tips to consider when incorporating them that will help keep you out of sticky situations!
A perfect storm
There are multiple factors that have come together to create a perfect storm for this market. Leading the charge is an overall effort to reduce excess amounts of sugar consumed, and a desire from consumers for less processed ingredients due to health concerns.
Other significant factors include the call for increased transparency and clean label foods. In Mintel’s “Global Food & Drink Trends 2018”, transparency and the need for food and drink manufacturers to be forthcoming about their ingredients, production processes and supply chains was listed as their top trend.
Sweeteners in the spotlight
With an increase in the demand for alternative sweeteners comes an increase in the types of sweeteners available to bakers, food manufacturers and consumers. Here are a number of options along with potential applications.
Natural simple syrups: Simple syrups like brown rice syrup, agave, honey and maple provide a viable alternative to high fructose corn syrup used in popular baked goods like croissants and pastries. High fructose corn syrup, which is a liquid sweetener made from cornstarch, has come under scrutiny in recent years. Many companies and consumers have moved away from this sweetener completely, opting for ingredients in the list below.
Brown rice syrup: This thick syrup can have a nutty flavour and is made by fermenting brown rice and breaking down its natural starches into sugars. Popular uses include pie filings, glazes and sauces.
Agave syrup: Derived from the leaves of the blue agave, this native Mexican plant is also used in the production of tequila. Agave is sweeter than honey, but less viscous, making it ideal as a sweetener alternative for coffee, tea and soda drinks.
Maple syrup: Made from the sap of maple trees, this syrup has a rich, distinct flavour profile, and is a good option for cookies and sweet bread applications.
Honey: Produced by bees from the nectar of flowers, honey is minimally processed and is popular with consumers. Honey can be used in a multitude of items such as beverages, sauces and bread loaves.
Organic, raw granulated sugars
For consumers looking for certified organic and minimally processed ingredients, organic and raw granulated sugars like coconut, palm and cane sugar are all options. These sugars can be substituted 1:1 for white granulated sugar.
Coconut sugar (coconut palm sugar): Derived from the sap of the coconut palm tree, this amber coloured sugar is enjoying a moment due to the current coconut craze. It tastes similar to brown sugar and is ideal for baking pastries, croissants, and any application that incorporates granulated sugar.
Palm sugar: Not to be confused with coconut palm sugar, palm sugar is derived from the sugar palm tree and has traditionally been used in Thai dishes. However, palm sugar can be used in diverse recipes and formulations, including baked goods such as muffins and cupcakes.
Natural cane sugar: There are a few differences between natural cane sugar and white granulated sugar. Natural cane sugar is made from sugar cane whereas white granulated sugar is made from sugar cane or sugar beets. Natural cane sugar is less processed than white granulated sugar. Natural cane sugar tends to have a slight amber colour due to the molasses content, meaning baked goods like sugar cookies will have a rich colour and taste.
Stevia is known for being a natural zero-calorie sweetener and a good option for the diabetic market because it does not affect an individual’s blood sugar levels.
Derived from the stevia rebaudiana plant, a South American herb, stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar. This means the amount of stevia used should be significantly reduced when substituting for conventional white sugar. While stevia can have a bitter aftertaste, research and development progress has been made to make stevia increasingly palatable, available and affordable. Ideal applications for stevia include sugar reduced applications like chewing gum, sport, energy and soda drinks. For baking purposes, stevia can be used to make certain reduced calorie products like biscotti style cookies.
With the need to change, comes the opportunity to innovate. Here are aspects to consider when exploring substitutes for conventional sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Let’s get technical: The dextrose equivalent (DE) of the alternative sweetener should be equal to the sweetener it’s replacing. DE is a measure of the amount of reducing sugars (glucose and maltose) present in a sugar product, expressed as a percentage on a dry basis (soluble solids) relative to dextrose. For example, if using granulated white sugar, it can be substituted with granulated organic cane sugar or coconut sugar. It’s important that both sweeteners have the same DE is because it allows bakers to easily substitute the ingredients using the same ratio without having to reformulate the recipe.
Sugar shelf life: Since sugars serve as preservatives, they play a key role in determining the shelf life of a product. Bakers should select an alternative sweetener that has the same shelf life as the one it’s replacing. If the chosen sweetener has a shorter or longer shelf life, labelling changes must be made and consumer expectations managed. This consideration supports product consistency.
The flavour factor: Taste, texture and aroma are all considerations consumers make when deciding what they like and what they don’t. This means bakers must also make these considerations when substituting ingredients in existing formulations or delving into product innovation. How does the chosen sweetener enhance the overall taste of the bakery item, and what flavour notes does it impart? For example, agave syrup has a neutral and mild flavour, especially when compared to maple syrup or honey, making it an ideal substitute for conventional sweeteners in beverages and pie fillings.
Underlining all these considerations is knowing how to best serve the target market and respond to changing consumer preferences. If the target consumer is looking for minimally processed items, organic granulated sugars may be the way to go. If the consumer is steering away from high-fructose corn syrup, any number of simple syrups may be worth exploring.
Ben Carnevale, B.Sc, is a food scientist for Blendtek Fine Ingredients, an innovative food ingredients and solutions company that supplies the basics and the inspired including specialty flours, proprietary blends, natural extracts and sweeteners, gluten free products, organic products, functional food systems and much more. For information visit Blendtek.com and follow on Twitter @Blendtek_Inc.