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Algorithm-powered digital sugar reduction [Interview]

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Sugar is a natural sweetener – but it is also a plasticizer, humectant, bulking agent, and more – and so reducing sugar in bakery products is not as simple as people may imagine. Wageningen’s digital sugar reduction tool can help brands meet the challenge.
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Researchers at Wageningen University have developed a digital sugar reduction tool to aid reformulation. We spoke to Irene van den Hoek, product physics and application scientist at Wageningen Food and Biobased Research in the Netherlands, to find out more.

Irene will be speaking at our Bakery, Snacks & Confectionery Deep Dive Day on 24 May. Sign up for the free-to-attend webinar here.

Irene, what are some of the biggest challenges that manufacturers face when trying to reduce sugar?

“Replacement of sugar is a challenging task as sugar is a multifunctional ingredient. Aside from taste, mimicking texture and structure of sugar-rich food is difficult due to the functionality of sucrose in bakery products, [such as] starch gelatinization and swelling, protein denaturation, etc. Substantial sugar reduction can have a negative effect on product quality if the sugar is not effectively replaced by other functional ingredients.

“Identifying the right ingredients to replace these functionalities of sugar without compromising the quality of the end-product can be a large challenge. Furthermore, other requirements should be taken into account, for example requirements for food labelling, consumer expectations, changes to the nutritional profile, etc. Because reformulation is such a multi-criteria task, for manufacturers it is often a technical challenge and requires substantial investments.”

Can you tell me how this sugar reduction tool works? What makes it superior to current reformulation tools?

“In recent years at Wageningen University & Research, experts have been investigating functionality of sugars and other functional ingredients, such as starches, proteins, and fibres, present in bakery products intensively from a physicochemical perspective. The interactions between ingredients are described and quantified during the main production steps, like mixing, baking, and cooling. Understanding the physicochemical principles which control the transformation of a cake batter or biscuit dough into the baked product, makes it possible to set up quantitative formulation guidelines that allow efficient reformulation.

“All this knowledge is implemented into a digital tool, in which possible formulations are calculated with the use of algorithms. This allows us to assess and select the most promising formulations for successful sugar reduction in that specific product. Additionally, specific targets such as energy content, fibre enrichment, calorie reduction, glycaemic index can also be taken into account. Using the tool can largely speed up the reformulation process. Using the predictions from the digital tool leads to a smaller range of experimental trials to find the formulation which best resembles the original product.”

It is notoriously difficult to find a one-to-one replacement for sugar because, as you have explained, it performs so many functions in addition to simply sweetening. In your experience, which ingredient combinations are best to effectively reduce sugar?

“There is not a single ingredient that exactly resembles the functionality of sucrose, which means that with one-to-one replacement the quality of the end-product is adversely affected. By identifying and combining different ingredients, an optimal mixture can be found that allows substantial sugar reduction without compromising on texture and taste.

“The two main functionalities of sugar which affect texture are: one, sugar acts as a plasticizer, it softens texture and lowers viscosity. And two, sugar acts as a humectant, it binds water as hygroscopic matter. Physical relations have been developed to describe these functionalities and understanding them gives the possibility to reformulate products while maintaining similar texture as the original product.

“One aspect that is important for both these functionalities is, for example, the molecular weight of the ingredient. Commercial sugar replacers such as inulin, fibres, and maltodextrins are often larger molecules than sucrose. Therefore, in order to balance the physical chemical parameters, these ingredient should be combined with smaller ingredients, such as polyols.”

Have you noticed a rise in the number of manufacturers looking to reduce sugar in their products in recent years? Or a change in the kind of ingredients they want to use to do so; for example, preferring natural sweeteners like stevia over high-intensity artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose?

“In recent years, consumers have become more conscious about the type of products they consume. Products with a healthier product composition are of large interest and this raised the desire of manufactures to look into reformulating their products. Additionally, the trends related to naturalness, clean labels, sustainability are still very important. Addressing these main trends by reformulating products gives manufacturer an opportunity for growth.”

Could Wageningen’s tool be used for other types of reformulation (other nutrients, categories etc)?

“[We] aim to work together with food industry to find solutions to the many challenges they face. The reformulation work is a part of broader research programme called Food Innovations for Responsible Choices research programme. Within this programme, Wageningen experts are also working on other types of innovative projects to find possibilities to make food products more healthy, durable and sustainable.

“At the moment this digital tool is focused on the sugar reduction and is validated for bakery applications. However, for the future, we are looking at possibilities to extend this work further. Possible routes are indeed extending and validating the tool on broader type of food products or extending the tool to include other reformulation issues, such as combined sugar and fat reduction, egg replacement.”

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