CHICAGO — Less sugar but same great taste … that’s what today’s consumers want. Formulators must factor in better-for-you ingredients like nuts and seeds, ancient grains, fiber, protein and functional oils, all of which can produce off-flavor notes in baked goods. Sometimes these off-flavors are noticeable when the product is fresh from the oven. Other times they intensify over a product’s shelf life, as in the case of unsaturated fatty acids oxidizing and turning rancid. Without the well-rounded sweetness of sugar to hide such undesirables, these off-flavors become more pronounced. Formulating for reduced sugar, better-for-you ingredients and great taste becomes the ultimate puzzle.

“Bakers are using flours that are whole grain and gluten-free and adding vegetable proteins to achieve the natural label that the consumer desires,” said Charithra Rai, senior innovation scientist, Sensient Flavors. “Unfortunately, these ingredients can introduce off-notes. In addition, reducing sugar can lead to texture and mouthfeel issues. Not addressing these challenges could lead to undesirable taste of the finished product.”

Despite these formulating challenges, reduced sugar as a consumer trend is not going away any time soon.

“The demand for products with lower sugar content will grow as this attribute moves away from trend status and toward the standard,” said Philip Caputo, marketing and consumer insights manager, Virginia Dare. “Having a product with high-sugar content is becoming a barrier to entry in many application categories.”

When a baker removes sugar from a recipe, the product must be reformulated to balance out the flavor, among other attributes. Additional tools come in the form of flavor maskers, modulators and enhancers — collectively referred to as flavor modifiers. These may be natural flavors designed to hide or block undesirable tastes, or flavors that intensify desirable ones.

“While today’s consumers pressure bakers to reduce or eliminate sugar in their products, they are unwilling to sacrifice sweetness, mouthfeel and delicious taste, and sugar is often largely responsible for delivering those benefits,” said Dave Douglass, business development manager, Apura Ingredients. “Because of this, low- and no-calorie clean label sweeteners, such as allulose, stevia and monk fruit, continue to grow in popularity as alternatives to sugar in baked goods.”

These tools allow bakers to deliver on sweetness. But sweet is just one of many roles of sugar.

“Sugar has many functions,” said Deborah Waters, senior business development manager, bakery, Kerry Ingredients. “In a sweet baked good, it controls batter viscosity, provides humectancy, lowers water activity, extends shelf life, provides a smooth, sweet profile and gives a softer texture to the crumb. In a yeast-raised product, sugar can impact fermentation or proofing, slow staling and increased sweetness, as well as mask astringency in higher fiber or whole wheat recipes.”

Delivering on sweetness

Consumers want better-for-you snacks and baked goods but not at the cost of good taste. Threading that needle in formulating bakery and snack products is the key to meeting these consumer demands.

“As health and wellness trends continue and a surge of new better-for-you snacks and baked goods hit the shelves, flavor is more important than ever,” said Hanna Santoro, senior scientist, baking development and applications, ADM. “Modifying solutions are customizable to specific requirements. Depending on the application and ingredients used, flavor modifying technology solutions can serve multiple functions.”

Allulose has been attracting considerable attention in the baking segment. This “rare sugar” was Generally Recognized as Safe in June 2012. In April 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration determined that allulose may be excluded from total and added sugars counts on labels and that the lower calorie content may be used for total calorie determination. That’s because allulose is not metabolized by the body. Its caloric value in humans is about 0.2 per gram as compared to 4 calories per gram of sugar.

These numbers make allulose appealing for baked goods, especially those that are typically high in sugar content. Bakers also find allulose attractive because it has a sweetness curve that is like sucrose; however, it is only about 70% as sweet as sucrose. Because it tastes like sucrose, it typically does not require any flavor masking. Flavor modulators may enhance the sweetness profile, or allulose may be used with some real sugar or high-intensity sweeteners to achieve the full sweet taste of sucrose.

“Allulose is found naturally in wheat, figs, raisins and jackfruit,” Mr. Douglass said. “[It comes] in powder, crystal and liquid forms for use in baked goods and snacks.”

Formulating for reduced sugar, better-for-you ingredients and great taste becomes the ultimate puzzle.

Another sugar alternative gaining bakers’ attention is isomaltooligosaccharide (IMO), which is a natural plant-based sweetener with 42% fewer calories than sugar. With high viscosity and high-heat tolerance, IMO is an effective binder, humectant and bulking agent.

“It has flavor and functionality similar to sugar and can be used in baked goods as a one-to-one bulk replacement or combined with other sweeteners to round out the sweetness profile,” said Sheri O’Brien, vice president-sales and marketing, BioNeutra North America Inc. “With about 50 to 60% the sweetness of sucrose, IMO complements high-intensity sweeteners while preserving color and textures critical to quality in baked goods.

“When using stevia in sugar-reduced cookies, formulators must account for stevia’s lingering aftertaste, low-bulk density and moisture retention,” Ms. O’Brien continued. “IMO sweeteners mask the aftertaste and provide bulk needed for creating chewy, flavorful cookies.”

For protein-fortified snacks and bars, sweet coatings can mask the flavor of the protein source. When trying to reduce sugar, bakers may thin out the coating.

“If a coating becomes too thin, it may create trouble on the production line, especially for pan-coated or drizzled bars,” Ms. O’Brien said. “IMO helps formulators reduce sugar while maintaining desirable viscosity and sweetness in chocolate, vanilla and other flavored coatings.”

Modifying flavors

Flavors are complex systems. They are not one-size-fits all, especially when it comes to their modifying function.

“We have found that it is important to first assess the base before you add a characterizing flavor profile,” said Tony Moore, chief innovation officer and chief flavorist, Flavor Producers. “Then modifying flavors can optimize the flavor profile.”

Vanilla is the original modifying flavor, according to Mr. Moore. It’s a comforting and flexible flavor that can be used to modify a variety of taste attributes. 

“The selection of the right type of extract in strength and flavor profile varies by application,” he said. “It is important to review the portfolio of options in order to select one that meets the targeted requirements in heat stability, processing conditions, cost and taste.”

From a chemist’s point of view, many factors go into masking a flavor. The question that must be answered is: “What are we trying to mask?”

“Different situations arise from new products being developed in today’s market,” said Antelmo Tristiani, senior flavor chemist, Synergy Flavors. “We first saw these issues when soy-based products hit the market years ago as they tend to have what consumers view as an unpleasant mouth-coating and beany taste profile. 

“Our challenge then was to create flavor systems, or maskers, using flavor technology to cover the beany, mouth-coating aspect, to make the products more appealing to consumers,” Mr. Tristiani noted. “The newer products in the market today present a myriad of taste challenges because they could have a flavor profile such as nutty, earthy, astringent or fatty, which sometimes creates multiple combinations of off tastes.”

When adding functional, better-for-you ingredients to baked goods, it is always best to start with high-quality, pleasant-tasting ingredients. This limits the amount of flavor masking needed in the finished product.

“Masking flavors are generally used at a low level, typically 0.05% to 0.10% and can be labeled the same as the characterizing flavor, depending on its composition,” said Margaret Walther, applications technologist, Synergy Flavors.

Sweet  flavors may also contribute some caramelized, brown notes. It’s also important to note, sweet aromas may be lost when reducing sugar in baked goods, according to Ms. Walther.

“In addition to sweetness maskers, we have a line of vegan dairy flavors that can contribute body and indulgence, which may be lost when reducing sugar,”
Ms. Walther said. “They round out the flavor, reduce grain notes and, in some cases, add back sweetness.” 

Sugar cane distillate is one type of bitterness blocker. It is produced through the distillation of leaves and stalks of select sugar cane varieties.

“It is a non-caloric ingredient that effectively modulates bitterness by loosely binding to the bitterness receptors in the taste buds, blocking the perception of bitterness by preventing the binding of bitter compounds,” said Cesar Contreras, business development manager, ASR Group. “Cane molasses distillate is produced through the distillation of Floridian sugar cane molasses.”

Cane molasses distillate, too, is a non-caloric ingredient. It enhances sweetness while providing a deep, complex flavor with brown sugar notes. Both are considered natural flavors.