Consumers across the globe have enjoyed colas, fruit-flavoured beverages and other sugar-sweetened drinks on a regular basis for decades. Today, whether for refreshment or potential health benefits, consumers are increasingly looking for low- to no-sugar beverage options without compromising on taste.
The focus on sugar content is partially fuelled by health concerns, including weight management and diabetes. In recent years, leading health experts and media reports have brought attention to a link between excessive sugar consumption and weight gain, identifying sugar as a major contributing factor to the obesity epidemic worldwide.
In addition, the World Health Organisation has reported that worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980. The global prevalence of diabetes among adults over 18 years of age rose from 4.7 percent in 1980 to 8.5 percent in 2014. Diabetes prevalence has been rising more rapidly in middle- and low-income countries.
The demand for ‘better-for-you’ beverage options doesn’t only come from the end consumer, but is also driven by social and cultural trends. From a broader social-economic standpoint, the declining health of various populations has placed a burden on public health funds; governments have seen this as a reason to get involved and influence awareness, attitudes, skills, preferences and behaviours around food/ drinks, diet and nutrition.
While reducing the amount of sugar in beverages has been a growing trend for many years with the proliferation of diet soft drinks, the current trend has expanded to beverages traditionally considered healthy, such as fruit juice drinks and protein beverages. Consumers are now more aware of sugar content in everything they consume and are demanding better taste in low-/no sugar, diet drinks. They seek healthier, nature-based alternatives, without sacrificing the great taste and texture they know and love in their favourite foods and beverages.
Consumer Demands Pose A Complex Challenge
Beverage manufacturers have been closely following the health issues associated with sugar, and many are committed to significantly reducing the amount of sugar in their products. As formulators have worked to reduce or replace sugar in their beverages, they find the task to be challenging and complex.
High Intensity Sweeteners (HIS) are commonly used by formulators to replace sugar, but they can create an undesirable aftertaste. Research has shown that although formulators have tried to work around these challenges by altering flavour and using different combinations of HIS, something in the consumer’s sensory experience has remained elusive.
CP Kelco, a producer of hydrocolloids has conducted a significant amount of research on reduced sugar beverages. “Replacing sugar is not a matter of simple substitution with another sweetener, because sugar does more than just add calories,” says Ross Clark, distinguished research fellow at CP Kelco. “It imparts sensory properties such as body (mouthfeel), aroma and, of course, taste.”
While formulators have found that adding hydrocolloid gums to sugar substitute solutions can help restore the sensory attributes of a beverage, there is not a ‘one-sizefits- all’ solution. Within the sensory properties, there are differences in how sugar substitution formulas behave, depending on the type of the beverage, which is why the sugar reduction challenge is so complex.
For example, a formulation to suppress negative sensory aspects in fruit juices is different than what would be appropriate for carbonated beverages or a protein-fortified drink. Similarly, a formulation that enhances taste and mouthfeel in a reduced sugar orange juice is different than the formulation for reduced sugar yoghurt drink.
CP Kelco performed a quantitative descriptive analysis sensory test, where hydrocolloid gums were evaluated for a total of 37 sensory attributes across the broad categories of texture (mouthfeel), aroma, flavour and aftertaste. Findings showed that perceived thickness or body can come from two different physical characteristics provided by the incorporation of gums: increased viscosity and increased density. Because a hydrocolloid imparts both traits on the beverage formulation, each one has a unique impact and method of providing body.
Mr Clark explains, “What we learned was that—for example—using a fairly high level of a low viscosity gum such as pectin can boost the density of a beverage while leaving the viscosity relatively unchanged. This added density or weight results in a mouth sensation of thickness, even when there’s little change in the actual viscosity.”
Reformulating With Hydrocolloids: A Solution For Sugar Reduction
Specialty hydrocolloids like pectin, gellan gum, cellulose gum and xanthan gum allow a formulated beverage to come closer to the ideal point of reference represented by full sugar beverages. Hydrocolloids can enable manufacturers to meet consumer demands for an enhanced mouthfeel, a more pleasant flavour and a reduction in the aftertaste left by HIS. In some formulations, very low levels are needed to closely replicate the full-sugar product.
The positive effect that hydrocolloid gums can have on reduced sugar beverages is significant, according to CP Kelco’s research. “Hydrocolloid gums can address the consumer’s expectations related to texture, flavour and taste,” adds Mr Clark. “The use levels can be very low, with the goal not to make the product feel thick or heavy in the mouth, but to make it more similar to the full sugar version and with far fewer calories.”
It’s clear that different gums provide body in beverages in different ways. For the food scientist looking to enhance and improve products, many choices are available. The variety of hydrocolloids will allow key improvements to be made as more reduced sugar products are developed and introduced.
“Working with a comprehensive range of hydrocolloids enables food scientists to formulate products for consumers who want to give up sugar without giving up the satisfaction of a full-sugar beverage,” Mr Clark explains. “Whether it’s mouthfeel, body, aroma or whatever might be important in your recipe, there are options that offer the right solutions for manufacturers.”
Oftentimes, the function of an added hydrocolloid will be to minimise unwanted and atypical flavours that can arise from the use of some high intensity sweeteners. Specialty hydrocolloids can do much more than just add viscosity. Most often added viscosity simply makes a beverage seem excessively thick.
Going deeper still, modification of the ‘slipperiness’ of a beverage (which is quantified using tribology measurements) is another function of certain hydrocolloids that can help make the reduced sugar beverage closer to the full sugar product and thus improve customer acceptability.
While there is no single solution to reformulate beverages for sugar reduction or replacement, food scientists have more than one strategy available to attain their desired outcomes. Leveraging hydrocolloid technology can enable formulators to meet consumers’ sensory expectations and preferences while delivering health and wellness benefits and achieving breakthrough innovation.