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Less sugar, but same number of calories

A British study has revealed that the consumer does not always understand what “reduced sugar content” means.

Every year, about 7,000 new food and drink products are marketed as sugar-free or with low/reduced sugar content. But the consumers do not have a clear understanding of what the term “reduced sugar content” actually means. Most have a clear expectation that when they buy a food with a third less sugar, for example, the number of calories will also be considerably lower. But that does not always happen. 

“Cornflakes with sugar contains 371 kcal per 100 gram. The sugar-reduced variety that is labelled as “1/3 less sugar” contains 369 kcal per 100 g. This possibly comes as a shock to those who believe that a reduced sugar content automatically means a reduced number of calories”, says Dr. Paul Berryman. He is the Head of the British Institute, Leatherhead Food Research, which conducts scientific research for the food industry. 

It is complicated
Leatherhead Food Research has implemented several projects in which the formulation of ingredients has been changed to reduce the content of fat, salt, sugar or additives. However, the product must taste at least as good as the original product. Otherwise it won’t sell.

“This is not an easy task”, confirms Paul Berryman. “When you remove salt, sugar or fat from a food, you change it quite radically. The critical question is what do you replace it with? In soft drinks we can replace the sugar with a high intensity sweetener and add more water. But what can you replace the sugar in cakes or breakfast cereals with? Certainly not water! The sugar is often replaced by a different type of carbohydrate – typically starch – and therefore the calorie content does not change.”

Sugar has many functions
Sugar has many functions as a food ingredient: as a sweetener, flavour enhancer, bitterness and acidity suppressor, for consistency and fullness, improving the mouthfeel, in the raising process and as a natural preservative. The sugar can be replaced by intensive sweeteners or bulk sweeteners (sugars, sugar alcohols and fillers). 

Most bulk sweeteners contain just as many calories as ordinary sugar, but sweeten less. Thus it is difficult to match the sweetness of sugar using substitutes. They have different flavour profiles and give a different consistency and mouthfeel.

Confused consumers
According to Paul Berryman it is essential that the consumer understands what they are buying when they choose a product containing less sugar. But the surveys conducted by Leatherhead Food Research for British Sugar have revealed that they are confused about claims that the sugar content is lower. According to the survey, if it says “1/3 less sugar” on a food product, the consumer expects that the calorie content is also correspondingly less. 

“The consumers are surprised (and in some cases angry) that a reduction in the sugar content is not necessarily the same as a reduction in calorie content! The respondents in the focus group felt they had been deceived by claims about reduced sugar content if the reduction did not lead to a significant reduction in calorie content”, notes Paul Berryman. 

Sugar has advantages
Paul Berryman concludes that reduction of the sugar content is a complex problem with product-specific challenges and solutions. He lists the many advantages of sugar: it has a clean, sweet flavour, suppresses bitterness and acidity, improves consistency, supplies energy and acts as a natural preservative. Sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol, can cause digestive problems and therefore cannot be consumed in the same quantities as sugar. And high intensity sweeteners can give an aftertaste. Paul Berryman also notes that there are plenty of examples where reduction of the sugar content does not automatically result in a reduction of the calorie content – a fact that consumers find very hard to believe.

Read Paul Berrymanns article