How hard can it be?

A delicious apple pieWhen food manufacturers moan about the difficulties of reducing sugar, should we ignore their concerns, or do they have a point.

As food manufacturers face increasing pressure to remove sugar from their products, it is tempting to view any complaints as the tiresome moaning of a corrupt and broken system. After all, how hard can it be to take out a bit of sugar? There are a million low-sugar recipe books available these days and thousands of sugar-free gurus on line, all detailing their clever tricks and tips to remove this deadly white poison from our diets. If the Hemsley sisters can make a sugar-free cake (apparently it’s guilt free too), surely it is just laziness and greed that prevents large manufacturers from doing the same. Perhaps ‘Big Food’ could learn a thing or two from the swath of sugar-free, clean eating Insta-gurus who have come to prominence in the last few years.

In reality, the only thing that food manufacturers might be able to learn from them is a bit of disingenuous marketing terminology (yeah, okay, this is something the industry is pretty good at already, but we are always looking to improve). A quick look at the recipes in any ‘sugar-free’ baking book will reveal that they are packed full of clever ‘sugar replacers’ such as date syrup, molasses, maple syrup, raw honey, agave or coconut sugar. These are all very useful for replacing sugar because they contain a secret ingredient that mimics sugar’s sweetness. And that ingredient is sugar. Lots of it. In fact, these posh syrups and nectars are made mostly of sugar, which is exactly why they work so well. And when that sugar is swirling around inside us, our bodies cannot really tell where it came from, or how much it cost. Recipes that the Hemsley sisters and their kin peddle as health panaceas usually contain very similar amounts of sugar to a standard cake or biscuit, and most of the time they are not nearly as nice.

Contrary to popular belief, food manufacturers are desperate to reduce the amount of sugar in their products. Although it is a relatively cheap ingredient and a useful way of making things taste good, the trend for consumers wanting to reduce it from their diets is huge and unavoidable. Genuine sugar reductions provide great marketing opportunities, and there is nothing like the twin forces of government pressure and consumer demand to concentrate the mind and drive reformulation efforts. And with the resources and knowledge that large manufacturers have at their finger-tips, this should be easy, right?

Well, in many cases, yes it is. When it comes to drinks, sauces and soups, often it is simply a case of removing sugar in small increments, training consumers to adapt their palate accordingly. If bigger steps are needed, there is a wide variety of low calorie sweeteners available, often allowing refined sugar to be removed completely with little impact on taste. Of course some consumers view these sweeteners as unfamiliar and unnatural, but when substantial reductions are required, often they are the only option.

But there is a problem. In some products, sugar is far more than just a sweetener. In cakes for example, it has a huge impact on structure and texture. Sugar helps control the temperature at which the starch sets, allowing more rise and a more aerated product. It also adds more to the flavour than just sweetness, caramelising baked products at the edges to give delicious browned crusts. And more than that, sugar is very useful for controlling water activity, so preventing spoilage and helping to maintain a longer shelf life.

Although these issues can be overcome, perhaps even more surprising is that when you reduce the amount of sugar in a recipe, it does not always leave you with a ‘healthier’ option. Sugar has a low calorie density when compared with most other ingredients, and in cakes there is not the option to replace it with water as there is in drinks. Fat has an energy density twice as high as sugar, so if you take sugar out, then you will be increasing the proportion of fat, and so raising the total number of calories in your product (unless you want to reduce the portion size and risk being accused of the dreaded ‘shrinkflation’). 

Dietary fibre can be used to replace sugar’s bulk, and as it has a lower calorie density than sugar it can provide genuine benefits. But the high levels required can have some interesting bottom related side effects, many of which are so significant that they need to be mentioned on pack. This might provide some comic moments in the nation’s tea rooms, but few would consider it a great marketing strategy.

To summarise, reducing sugar will give you tough, anaemic cakes, likely to dry out and spoil more quickly than standard recipes, often with more calories per portion. And if you do manage to reduce the total calories, you will end up having to warn consumers that their favourite treat is also a powerful laxative.

Reformulation can be hard, but it is not impossible. New baking techniques and an increasing armoury of novel ingredients are being used to compensate for changes in flavour and texture and to reduce any rear-end embarrassment. Despite all the problems, manufacturers are quietly making great progress, and in doing so they are removing more sugar from the nation’s diet than any celebrity chef’s PR campaign ever has.  
But this work does have its limits. It is important to remember that a cake should still be a cake. If sugar can be removed from our diets by taking it out of our favourite products, then that is surely a good thing. But this should never cross the line into prohibition and control. Although consumers are increasingly interested in health, every manufacturer knows that pleasure still drives most of their decisions, especially when it comes to our favourite sweet treats. We must ensure that these remain items consumed for pleasure, rare treats to brighten our day, not virtuous health foods designed to alter our bowel function. If we reformulate them to death, stripping out every vestige of joy, then people will only seek delight elsewhere, perhaps driving them to less healthy choices.


Anthony Warner is a development chef in the food manufacturing industry. He blogs as The Angry Chef. His first book, The Angry Chef – Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating will be published on the 6th July.