Food makers are racing to find acceptable alternatives to sugar. But it’s hard to replace a taste that so many Americans have grown to love.
Traditional sweeteners—from sucrose, or table sugar, to high-fructose corn syrup—are an increasing concern to consumers and lawmakers, who see them as a key culprit in America’s obesity and diabetes epidemic.
Now researchers at food giants, startups and universities are looking for new ways to make foods sweet without putting people’s health at risk. Some are testing out natural zero-calorie ingredients like monkfruit and South American root extracts that are so intensely sweet that they can add flavor without calories. Others are manipulating granules of sugar to make them taste sweeter. They’re also developing new ingredients that will block bitter taste receptors and make food seem like it has more sugar than it does.
Nestlé SA scientist Olivier Roger, who’s leading the food titan’s sugar-reduction effort globally, says many companies are working on finding answers. Adding to the urgency: Some companies, like Nestlé, have self-imposed deadlines for lowering sugar content in food.
But there are big challenges to removing what has been a key ingredient in processed food for over a century.
For one thing, there are side effects to removing sugar: It not only adds sweetness but also functions as a preservative and adds texture, as well as contributing to the overall volume of food. Whole recipes have to be rethought when it is removed. And after finding an alternative, companies may face higher costs, supply constraints or regulatory hurdles related to the substitute ingredients.
“It’s very difficult, very complex. We still don’t have the magic solution that would replace sugar,” Mr. Roger says.
The push comes amid a widespread effort to put the brakes on sugar consumption. In a survey released by market-research firm Nielsen earlier this year, 22% of respondents said they already restrict their sugar intake. Most major food makers, including Mars Inc., General Mills Inc. and Kellogg Co. , have pledged to reduce sugar in candy, children’s cereals and other products.
Last year, the federal government called out sugar consumption as a problem in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, recommending for the first time that people consume no more than 10% of their daily calories from added, or refined, sugars. Americans currently average 13% of their calories from added sugar, the report says.
Regulators also said last year that food and beverage makers will be required to disclose on nutrition labels how much sugar has been added to products, as a distinct item within the total sugar content. The FDA recently extended the deadline for the new labels to Jan. 1, 2020 from July 2018.
Cutting the amount of sugar will be a steep task. More than 22,000 products in the U.S. contain high-fructose corn syrup, according to food labels cataloged by Nielsen and Label Insight, a provider of food-label data. Even foods widely seen as healthy contain added sugars. For instance, among yogurt products, 86% contain added sugars of some kind, as do 79% of shelf-stable juices and drinks.