Finding the sweet spot: Balancing low-cal with sugar taste

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

WHO published a revised guideline in 2015, in which it urged the reduction of added-sugar intake to less than 10% of total energy intake. ©iStock
WHO published a revised guideline in 2015, in which it urged the reduction of added-sugar intake to less than 10% of total energy intake. ©iStock

Related tags: Low calorie sweeteners, Sugar

The increase in low-calorie sweetener (LCS) consumption in US adults and kids has once again placed a question mark over their long-term use and effects on health.

It has come as the consumer drive towards reducing sugar and the rise in reduced-calorie products have gone hand-in hand resulting in trends​ that illustrate the momentum towards sugar-free foods and beverages.

Latest figures​ suggest that sales of sugar-sweetened beverages in daily calories per person are declining in a number of high-income regions such as Western Europe, North America and Australasia.

In addition, more statistics show 68% of packaged foods and beverages available in the US contain caloric sweeteners, 74% include both caloric and low-calorie sweeteners, and 5% include only low-calorie sweeteners.

“We expect that the US pattern of caloric sweeteners and low-calorie sweeteners in the food supply will also be seen in most high-income countries and around the world in the next few decades,”​ said the study’s authors.

Although a consensus regarding the health effects of sugar-sweetened beverages has largely been reached, LCS as a viable long-term candidate that satisfies the sweet taste remains largely undecided.

The trials of reformulation

Sugar reduction is more complicated than ‘just taking the sugar out,’ having a huge say in a food or beverages’ structural and nutritional composition. Other functional properties include providing bulk or texture.

Currently European legislation states that the use of a low calorie sweetener in a food or beverage, in almost all cases, must also result in a product that has a total energy reduction of at least 30%.

For consumers, this can mean significant calorie savings from sugar. Such products can help individuals achieve current recommendations for a lower sugar intake.

However, the most obvious issue here is the compromise on taste. A high sugar content is key to the pleasant taste that define carbonated drinks.

Here the switch to a low calorie alternative can be a make or break decision.  Sprite’s choice to use stevia in 2013 is a good example. Its new taste profile did not sit well with consumers, resulting in sales of this Sprite version dipping 9.4% in the year following the change.

There are wide-ranging manufacturing issues too. Except for large multinationals, the majority of companies cannot slow down or even stop production lines while they experiment with new recipes.

But for Robert Peterson, Chairman of the International Sweetener Association (ISA) reformulation with LCS remains on track despite the challenges and previous disappointments of the past.

“Innovation and advances in recipe development from manufacturers and the food industry have made possible all kinds of food and beverage products sweetened with low calorie sweeteners.”

Low calorie sweeteners are not a magic bullet​,” he acknowledged.  

“However, low calorie sweeteners have been shown to be a helpful tool in reducing overall calorie intake and as a dietary strategy to help in weight control, when used in place of sugar and as part of a weight loss programme.”

The health angle

sugar obesity death Copyright Lauri Patterson
Opponents of LCS cite evidence that that link LCS in foods and beverages and the cardiometabolic problems they seem to promote.©iStock/Lauri Patterson

Detractors invariably point towards evidence that highlight the addition of LCS to foods and beverages and a link to a range of cardiometabolic problems.

Results from several longitudinal cohort studies implicate low-calorie sweeteners as a cause of increased weight​ and diabetes

But for industry bodies like ISA representing suppliers and users of low/no calorie sweeteners, there is no question of what this sugar substitute represents.

“Advances in the development of new low calorie-sweetened food and beverage recipes and in research, which have led to more good-tasting, high-quality products available in the last decade,”​ said Peterson.

“It is well documented that low calorie sweeteners are non-cariogenic and tooth-friendly, as they maintain tooth mineralisation by decreasing tooth demineralisation if consumed instead of sugars.”

More specifically, EFSA’s scientific opinion in 2011 states that maintaining  tooth mineralisation by reducing tooth demineralisation resulting from acid production in plaque caused by the  fermentation  of  carbohydrates  is  a  beneficial  physiological  effect.

This is provided that it is not accompanied by tooth demineralisation resulting from erosive properties of a food.

More significantly, counter studies​point to LCS’ role in reducing body weight, fat mass, and waist circumference. 

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