Good food with less sugar
A lot of food contains too much sugar, salt or fat. This is why scientists from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) are looking at how they can make foods healthier. For example, they helped to develop ways of making ginger cake and sprinkles using less sugar. What other products could be made healthier?
It sounds easy to put less sugar into food. ‘Taste is all about habituation,’ says Joost Blankestijn, programme manager of ‘Innovations for responsible food choices’ at Wageningen. ‘If you gradually put less sugar in your coffee, you’ll get used to it. If you drink coffee with sugar again after a few years, you’ll be surprised at sweet it tastes.’ But if you suddenly reduce the sugar in a product significantly, people will find it less tasty and will buy from a competitor who still bakes the sweet bread rolls.
It’s important that we eat less sugar. More and more people are suffering from health issues such as obesity or conditions such as type 2 diabetes. At the end of November 2018, dozens of organisations and companies signed the National Prevention Agreement, which is intended to combat obesity and prevent other health issues. As it stands, 49% of adults in the Netherlands are overweight. However, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) aims to reduce this figure to 38% by 2040 by implementing measures to ensure a healthier range of food at company and school canteens and reduce sugar and calories in dairy and soft drinks.
“ We’re replacing sugar with ingredients that are beneficial to people’s health. For example, we use natural sweeteners with fewer calories, or fibres that promote gut flora. ”
Wageningen researchers help food manufacturers to make their products healthier, without compromising on taste. For instance, over a period of three years, researchers were able to develop the ideal combination of sugar substitutes for Peijnenburg’s famous ginger cake. This was a complex process, explains Joost Blankestijn. ‘Sugar not only gives the product a sweet taste but also creates a creamy structure, giving the cake a pleasant mouthfeel. Sugar ensures that the cake doesn’t get too soggy and has a longer shelf life. It also provides volume, so that the product remains affordable.’
The researchers analysed the properties of the various sugar substitutes, such as fibres and sweeteners. Eventually, they found a mix of sugar substitutes that give the ginger cake the texture and spicy taste consumers like. The researchers need to look at each product individually, determining which combination of which sugar substitutes works best. After all, the ingredients as a whole as well as how the food is prepared have an influence on each other.
The researchers are also looking at ingredients that have a positive effect on health, says Blankestijn. ‘For example, a natural sweetener such as xylitol extracted from birch bark contains fewer calories than sugar. Fibres such as inulin from the roots of the chicory plant provide volume, just like sugar, and also promote gut flora. The researchers are also working on fermenting orange juice to convert sugar into sweeteners, ensuring that the juice retains its flavour but has far fewer calories. A similar method can also be used to reduce sugar in tomato ketchup.
Step by step
Aside from the challenges in production, competition issues mean that manufacturers are struggling to reduce the sugar, salt and fat content in their products. For instance, the US company Campbell Soup reduced the salt content in all their soups seven years ago. Many consumers then stopped buying the brand, and Campbell was forced to add more salt again. Blankestijn explains, ‘If manufacturers pull together and take small steps at the same time, consumers can gradually get used to changes. To lay down their joint efforts to make the products healthier, the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport and the food industry have made agreements on each target category: dairy, desserts, sweets, cold cuts and home-bake pizzas.
What other products could be made healthier? Do you have any other questions or comments about sugar reduction? If so, join the discussion!
Aside from long-term research, Wageningen experts offer one-day advice sessions to help food companies start making their products healthier. Twenty SMEs have received such advice to date, including Tilburg-based Delicia, which manufactures ‘hagelslag’ (sprinkles used as a sandwich topping). Reducing the sugar in the recipe resulted in soggy sprinkles, but this problem has since been solved. By using more cocoa, Delicia uses 20 to 30% less sugar. WUR also gave a sweets manufacturer some tips. Blankestijn believes the desserts market has a lot of untapped potential, too.
The next step is to eliminate sugar from some products, Blankestijn thinks. ‘I think people are starting to pay more and more attention to the number of calories in their food. They’re not only concerned about sugar, but also about fat and carbohydrates.’ He has been involved in research into sugar reduction for twelve years now. Have his experiences changed his eating habits? ‘Not really, but I hardly drink any soft drinks anymore. I also make sure my children consume less sugar and eat enough wholemeal products, vegetables and fruit.’