Suzanne Callander reports on the dealbreakers for any better-for-you options, which are taste and indulgence, and this remains the main reasons that consumers will purchase confectionery.

There can be no denying that the Covid-19 pandemic has made consumers far more conscious about their long-term health and related to this, their eating and drinking habits. Research conducted in 2021 by FMCG Gurus found that 66% of global consumers had become more conscious about their overall health because of the virus, while 76% said that they planned to improve their diets. After eating more fruit, the second most popular strategy that consumers planned to adopt was to reduce their sugar intake.  

For the confectionery sector this means the need to focus on sugar reduction is growing, especially as many consumers feel they have gained weight over the last couple of years due to increased levels of comfort eating and reduced levels of activity. FMCG Gurus found that 56% of consumers say that their attitude towards sugar has changed over the last two years, with more urgency being placed on reducing intake of the ingredient.  

However, when reducing their sugar intake, it appears that consumers are not willing to compromise on taste or indulgence, with 51% of consumers admitting that they associate products with reduced sugar content to be less tasty. The challenge for confectioners, therefore, is to find a solution that can help reduce the sugar content of products, but which will not impact negatively on taste. Adding a further element to this challenge, consumers are also keen for their sweeteners to come from natural sources – with 50% of consumers saying they believe natural sweeteners are healthier than sugar.  

Making health choices 

According to Klaudia Volmer, Product Manager Functional Carbohydrates at BENEO, the turbulence caused by the Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years will continue to influence healthier confectionery choices in the coming year. “As a result, it is no real surprise to see that consumers are now expecting their confectionery to deliver in terms of both taste and health,” she says.  

As well as a move towards confectionery that supports consumers looking to balance indulgence and health, Klaudia points out the growing demand for greater label transparency – consumers want to know exactly what they are eating. As a result, the demand for natural functional ingredients, such as rice starch, in low- and no-sugar confectionery is on the rise. Ultimately, confectionery manufacturers will need to make it easier for shoppers to be able to swap to healthier confectionery snacks by using more transparent communication, labelling and/or claims. 

Because sugar is so crucial for taste, texture and mouthfeel in confectionery products there are a range of technical and sensorial challenges that need to be resolved when replacing or reducing it. “Today, a large number of candies and chewing gums are already sugar-free. However, confectionery is considered a treat and so taste, texture and mouthfeel are all key when it comes to indulgent treats. Depending on the application it can be very challenging from a technical point of view to replace sugar entirely, without also impacting the desired sensory profile,” says Klaudia. 

“Derived from natural sugar beet, the sweetening profile of BENEO’s Isomalt is very similar to that of sucrose, with a degree of sweetness of about 50% and no undesirable aftertastes. Also, thanks to its sugar-Iike taste, it can enhance fine and subtle flavours with sweetness. It is also tooth friendly – carrying a respective EU health claim and also an FDA health claim stating that it “does not promote tooth decay.” 

“51% of consumers admit that they associate products with reduced sugar content to be less tasty”

Klaudia went on to discuss the growth in the use of functional carbohydrates in the confectionery sector. She says: “Longer-term health is influencing purchasing decisions taken for children, with 75% of parents globally saying it is ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important for children’s products to have better nutrition. As a result, we are seeing more customers looking to reformulate their confectionery products to make them sugar-free or sugar-reduced, while also still wanting a treat that delivers in terms of taste and texture.” 

Translating this trend and overcoming a range of technical challenges, BENEO-Technology Centre has been working on a range of sugar-free candy and gum concepts which help demonstrate the potential for new confectionery coatings. The end result is a raft of new product concepts based on its Isomalt sugar replacer – including a translucent coated chewy candy, and a soft mint chewable with sanded coating – the goal is to help confectionery manufacturers overcome various challenges when replacing sugar with an alternative, including reduced stickiness and delivering high form stability, enabling the creation of complex shapes and allowing for individual solutions for low and no sugar confectionery applications. 

A balanced approach 

Magalie Benoit, Senior Application Specialist Confectionery at Cargill also accepts that the pandemic has accelerated demand from consumers for healthier foods. “There has been a shift in sweet categories towards a more balanced approach in recipe formulation,” she says. “Whereas traditionally the focus of reformulation was on a single ingredient, for example the reduction of sugar, the surge in front-of-pack nutrition labelling schemes, like Nutri-Score, has brought the overall balance of the recipe to the forefront. This focus on improvements in Nutri-Score labels leads to overall more balanced products, which not only look to reduce certain nutrients but also take into account the increase of ‘positive elements’ such as proteins and fibres.”  

Magalie points out, however, that the drive for sugar reduction is ongoing. Innova data shows that 16% of sugar confectionery launches tracked in Europe in 2021 featured a sugar and/or calorie claim. The most popular sugar-related claim by far remains ‘sugar free’. It is the most common claim for gums (85% of 2021 launches), medicated confectionery (47% of 2021 launches) and mints (44% of 2021 launches). 

Consumer demand for lower sugar options has resulted in many confectionery producers moving towards the introduction of reduced-sugar versions of their best-selling products. However, it is important to remain on the right side of all the trends and another important consumer demand today is for natural products which, in part, explains the increased uptake of stevia as a confectionery sweetener. 

“Fortunately, in the last decade, we have made huge leaps forward in the tools available to enable the reduction of sugars, especially in the stevia space,” says Magalie. “Cargill has invested a great deal of time studying the properties of the stevia leaf, searching for the optimal balance of sweetness and taste. As part of that research, it has developed the ViaTech portfolio of stevia leaf extract sweeteners which use a proprietary taste-prediction model to precisely predict which combination of sweet components delivers optimal taste and sweetness for a particular product.”  

However, while stevia does a good job replacing the sweet taste of sugar other ingredients are required to fulfil the bulking and functional role of sugar. “That is when we turn to polyols like erythritol a naturally occurring sugar alcohol that can be made from corn using enzymes and fermentation – and which pairs well with stevia in confectionery applications,” continues Magalie. “This zero-calorie sweetener can be used in a variety of confectionery applications, including chewing gum, fudge, chocolate, compressed candy, fondants and gummies. It delivers a clean, sweet taste profile, similar to sugars, and replaces sugars’ bulk at a one-to-one ratio. In addition, erythritol has a high digestive tolerance, when compared to other polyols – an important consideration for indulgent products such as candy. It is also clinically shown to offer better tooth protection than other polyols.”  

Later this year Cargill is set to launch a range of clean-label soluble fibres (corn and wheat-based), which will complete its toolbox of sugar reduction solutions, helping reduce sugar by up to 30%, while enabling ‘high in fibre’ claims. 

Time for change? 

I spoke to Yoav Goan, CEO and Dagi Pecatch the company founder of B.T. Sweet Ltd, an Israel-based foodtech startup and creator of a new botanical sugar alternative called Cambya, who believe they have a good solution to help confectioners meet their reformulation challenges. 

Yoav tells me that the biggest challenge facing confectionery R&D departments today, when looking to reduce sugar content, is to maintain a product’s taste when reformulating recipes to achieve reductions in sugar. “Confectioners need to change the ingredients but not the taste or mouthfeel of their products,” he says. “We believe the trends for more natural and plant-based ingredients in confectionery recipes, along with the trend for sugar reduction, will continue to grow. Everyone is looking for ways to reduce the sugar content of their product – in confectionery this is a particular challenge as it often can comprise up to 70 or 80% of the product!” 

Cambya (which means ‘change’ in Latin) has been developed to provide a 1-2-1 clean-label equivalent to botanical sugar. It is made from natural plant-based fibres with an intense sweetener and masking extracts, all blended together to create a sugar-like solution. It is available in either powered or granulated form and the team has a working proof-of-concept that confirms its applicability in dry, wet-hot, and cold applications.  

“While natural sweeteners are gaining popularity, some can give off a bitter lingering aftertaste,” continues Yoav. “To counter this organoleptic challenge, when developing Cambya we sought to target the hydrophobic sites on natural sweeteners, rendering them less accessible to flavour receptors, which has helped deliver a sugar-like sweetening and bulking effect.”  

Dagi added: “Cambya blends well with sugar so can be used to create reduced-sugar product offerings – usually we find that confectioners are looking for reductions of 50% or more. We have a team of food technologists with experience in many different areas so we can help reformulate products to meet individual sugar-reduction goals. It is often possible to remove a percentage of the sugar and directly replace it with Cambya, creating a product with reduced sugar content but having no effect on taste or mouthfeel.” 

A desire for indulgence 

While consumers are largely driving demand, it should not be forgotten that public health programmes have been a huge catalyst for changing consumer food habits over recent years. The cumulative effect of charity campaigns, governmental initiatives – and to a greater degree legislation – has successfully encouraged more health-conscious choices. In the UK, for example, manufacturers have sought to reduce sugar by 20% across key categories like cakes, cereals, and confectionery, not only to meet Public Health England targets but also to appeal to changing consumer attitudes.    

Focussing on the drivers behind sugar reduction in chocolate in particular, Philippa Knight, Marketing Director at Puratos UK, points out that consumers wish for healthy options must be balanced with their unwavering desire for indulgence. “Chocolatiers large and small are now taking up the reduced sugar baton,” she says. According to Innova, the frontrunners in the sugar reduced chocolate race include the UK, the US, Brazil and France, with low- or no-sugar claims now appearing on four percent of all new chocolate products globally. “There is a clear appetite for reduced-sugar chocolate offerings but catering to this growing demand does not come without challenges,” adds Philippa.    

The reduced sugar narrative has evolved in recent years, fuelling the ‘permissible indulgence’ trend, in which consumers seek indulgence without guilt. According to the most recent Taste Tomorrow report, two-thirds of Europeans believe reducing sugar contributes to better health. However, the research also found that consumers are unwilling to sacrifice taste or texture in pursuit of healthier alternatives.  

“This refusal to compromise on taste or mouthfeel, alongside technical, regulatory and labelling disadvantages, poses an issue for users of many established and emerging sugar alternatives – including high intensity sweeteners, synthetic fibres and polyol derivatives,” says Phillipa. “For a solution, chocolate producers who are also prioritising clean labels are turning to sugar replacements derived from natural fibres, such as chicory root fibres.  

“There is now a small number of B2B chocolate manufacturers who can offer solutions that contain 40% less sugar, while retaining natural sweetness and indulgent flavour. This sizeable sugar reduction can provide a valuable buffer, making it possible for chocolatiers and producers of other finished goods containing chocolate to continue adding other sugar-containing ingredients if they wish, without sacrificing the ‘lower sugar’ claim on their finished product. It also means they can avoid changes to ingredient storage or production.” 

Philippa highlights the fact that selecting a reduced sugar chocolate should be approached with diligence. “The best option will be determined only if B2B chocolate manufacturers consider numerous elements such as cocoa source, interactions and synergies between ingredients and the impact of the chocolate-making process. This mindful approach ensures that finished chocolate products benefit from balanced taste while simultaneously striking a chord with increasingly health-conscious and discerning consumers.” 

It is very apparent that confectionery brands do need to start the process of offering healthier, reduced-sugar options to their customers. However, there is a need to apply caution when developing sugar reduction strategies as it is vital that it never compromises taste. Taste and enjoyment will continue to be the main reason why people turn to confectionery products, so it is crucial that any better-for-you products are not associated with compromised indulgence. 

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Editor: Kiran Grewal