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September 25, 2013

16 Min Read
Confections for a Slimmer Society

By Kimberly J. Decker, Contributing Editor

In our nations collective zeal to slim itself down, we could be forgiven for asking: Is nothingnot even the school vending machinesacred? It wont be if USDA has its way. On February 1, 2013,  the agency released a proposed set of standards that call on Americas public schools to cap the calories in individual foods and drinks sold in vending machines at 200. With a standard Snickers® bar weighing in at 250 kcal alone, schools might have to start stocking minis, or figure out how to turn kids onto rice cakes instead of candy.

Then again, maybe not. Confectioners have gotten pretty crafty at finding sweet spots in formulations where they can spare a few calories. With each generation of high-intensity sweeteners improving upon the last, reducing both the sugar and the calories in sweets has become less of a dream and more of a reality.

So, candy machines may not need their extreme makeovers after all. Thats not to say that bringing confections into line with new restrictions will be easyand it wont be. Confectioners simply have to remember that just as sugar brings more than sweetness to a confection, reducing calories means more than just subbing out sugar.

Where the calories are

Our enthusiasm for cutting calories is no passing fad. As Robert F. Boutin, president, Knechtel, Inc., Skokie, IL, says: Its very important and its going to continue. If you look at the incidence of obesity and diabetes in the United States, more people are looking for healthy options," and low-calorie confections are among them. As interest in nutraceutical candies continues to explode" along with school-nutrition regulations, he adds, the overall trend will be for reducing calories and reducing sugar."

We cant reduce one without the other because, in confections at least, sugar is where the calories are. Yet sugar is also where the sweetness is. And, as Boutin notes, Sweetness is just one of a multitude of characteristics that sugar supplies to a confection. As you increase the level of any sweetenereven sucrosethe characteristics of that mass become more noticeable."

Crystal clear

Among sweeteners, sugar, or sucrose, is the gold standard against which all others are judged," Boutin says. Its sweetness is very clean. Its a flavor potentiator. It doesnt have a lot of negatives, like cooling or flavor masking." And, he adds, There are so many other characteristics that sugar gives in addition to sweetness."

Take crystallization. The property is a plus in some confections and a drawback in others, but either way it illustrates how important sweetener mix is to confection success.

The higher the level of sucrose," Boutin explains, the greater tendency the product has to crystallize." So, to produce a hard, glass-type candy, confectioners will raise the ratio of sucrose to syrup in their sweetener mix. Sucrose delivers the target sweetness without significant hygroscopicity, Boutin says, so it doesnt pick up moisture and the candy will not be overly sticky." A Life Savers® or Jolly Rancher® might have 70 parts sugar to 30 parts corn syrup, for example.

But, if you made a starch-deposited candy like a gummy or jelly bean with very high levels of sugar," Boutin continues, the shelf life would probably be reduced because the sugar will want to crystallize," hardening the candies texture. To prevent that, confectioners tilt the sweetener mix toward glucose or corn syrup, neither of which is as keen to crystallize as sucrose. Invert has good humectancy," he adds, plus good flavor and is a good non-crystallizer."

And theres more. In whats called a nongrained caramel, the type found in a chocolate turtle, a mix of roughly 45 parts sugar to 55 parts corn syrup wards off crystallization and keeps the texture soft. On the other hand, If you go 50/50 or 60/40," Boutin says, more sugar than corn syrup, you end up getting what they call a grained caramel," such as  Kraft Caramels or a Tootsie Roll®. Similar principles operate in nougats, with soft Italian torrones chiefly syrup-sweetened, and semi-grained nougats like those in Milky Way®, Snickers and 3 Musketeers® bars leaning toward sugar.

And we havent even touched on chocolate. Boutin calls it a funny animal" because any humectancy or hygroscopicity in its sweetener mass is verboten. Theres no water in chocolate at all," he explains. Its all fat. You could put dextrose in, you could put sugarbut you cant put corn syrup, because as soon as you put any water in with that fat, it turns into a pudding."

Its a complicated picture, and he notes that todays super-high-speed forming equipment complicates things further. Such machines put a lot of work or handling into a product," he says, forcing manufacturers to dial back crystallization with more corn syrup or glucose. Formulations," he points out, are always adjusted based on the functional characteristics of each component."

Bulk rate

If only those functional characteristics were universal across sweetenersnutritive ones like sucrose and corn syrup, as well as the high-intensity alternatives that are the linchpins of todays reduced-calorie confections. But theyre not. And improved though the latest mega-sweeteners may be, theyre still, Boutin says, by definition, sweeteners." Period, full stop.

For example, they contribute almost nothing to the crystallization control mentioned above. Many dont participate in Maillard browning reactions. And then theres the issue of bulk. At hundreds to thousands times sugars sweetness, high-intensity sweeteners appear at nowhere near the volume in formulations as sugar does. In a reduced-sugar soft drink or jam, water could fill the vacuum sugar left; but confections arent high-water productsand many, like chocolate, arent even particularly compatible with it.

And yet a traditional milk chocolate bar might be as much as 55% sugar. Remove that sugar and replace it with a high-intensity sweeteners at only a fraction of the percentage, and what do you do with all that extra room?

Boutin calls that the confectionery industrys million-dollar question." In fact, he says, its worth more than a million: Its a billion-dollar opportunity" for ingredient innovation. Currently, the ingredients we use to replace sugars bulk run from crystalline polyolsmaltitol and sorbitol, for exampleto vegetable gums, resistant starches, maltodextrin and polydextrose. What makes them effective is both their bulk (obviously) and their low energy densityaround 2 kcal per gram for many polyols and even 0 calories for some resistant starches that metabolize as dietary fiber.

Melanie Goulson, Truvia stevia extract applications manager, Cargill, Minneapolis, cites tagatose and isomaltulose as bulk sweeteners with promising confectionery characteristics. Tagatose is technically a sugar," she says, an isomer of fructose." And yet it has fewer calories than ordinary sucrose, requires no insulin for digestion, is noncariogenic and acts as a prebiotic. While it adds bulk to a range of confections, it sees greatest use in chocolate-flavored products. (We cant call such products chocolates" proper, as FDA standards of identity restrict that terms use to items containing nutritive carbohydrate sweeteners," per Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 163, Section 123.) In U.S. food labeling, an energy value of 1.5 calories per gram may be used for tagatose.

As for isomaltulose, its a slow-release, noncariogenic carbohydrate with applicability in confections, says Goulson. Its slow digestion means it has a lower peak insulin demand than sucrose."

Laura Quinn, an application specialist for multiple food applications, DuPont Nutrition & Health, New Century, KS, praises polydextrose as a good bulking agent for reduced-calorie products, because it provides only 1 kcal per gram." Available as a powder or a liquid, the latter form of the ingredient can stand in for corn syrup; some grades even contain residual sugars that participate in Maillard browning. The companys polydextrose is "a soluble dietary fiber, prebiotic and low-GI ingredient," she says, and has  replaced sugar, reduced calories and boosted fiber in gummies, jellies and licorice-style candies.

Crossing the threshold

Polydextrose, Quinn notes, is also the most tolerated of the sugar replacers," at 50 grams per serving, or 90 grams per day. What shes referring to is the ingredients digestive toleranceperhaps the biggest downside involved in using most current bulking agents.

When they hydrate, certain polyols, resistant starches and even vegetable gums absorb moisture and promote laxationa property thats no fun for grownups and can be especially unwelcome to kids, for whom many reduced-sugar confections are designed. Among other polyols, lactitol has a tolerance threshold of 20 to 50 grams per day, and xylitol 50 to 90 grams per day. But, besides their generally low tolerance thresholds, bulking agents have other shortcomings. Some vegetable gums cant withstand the processing and handling stresses of confectionery manufacture, Boutin says, and some resistant starches get sticky as use levels creep up to around 50% to 60%. So, for the past several decades, Knechtel has been fine-tuning its own bulking alternative that sidesteps some of these disadvantages.

The as-yet-unnamed product is a combination of GRAS-affirmed ingredients that, as a whole, provide bulk and are sugar-free, nonhygroscopic, noncariogenic and nonlaxative, with accepted daily intakes ranging from 150 to 300 grams. At 1.8 kcal per gram, the ingredient is on a par with polyols, but being flavorless, provides more formulation flexibility. Boutin says manufacturers can use it in hard-candy glasses and chocolate-type products, and potentially in compressible for tablet applications, too (work there is still ongoing). As a syrup with 80% solids, its similar in viscosity to 42 DE corn syrup and can help control crystallization. And finally, its all-natural and surprisingly clean" on a label, he says. With GRAS approval already on its side, all the ingredient needs to break through is commercialization.

Polyfunctional polyols

Despite their shortcomings, traditional polyols remain quite popular in sugar-free confectionery," Quinn says. Xylitol, for example, stands out because of its high negative heat of solution. This means it requires an input of energy to dissolve and, when it does, removes energy from the oral cavity to produce a cooling effect and fresh flavor.

Quinn calls xylitol a very good choice" in confections that benefit from cooling, like mints and gum. Additionally," she says, it has a very clean flavor profile that can add freshness to fruit flavors and even mask bitterness." And, because its as sweet as sugar, it can replace sugar directly and reduce the need for high-intensity sweeteners, which can have an undesirable flavor or aftertaste," she notes. At 2.4 kcal per gram, xylitol takes a smaller bite out of a confections calorie content than high-intensity alternatives do, but its still less energy-dense than sugar.

And dont forget the cavity angle: Xylitol is unique in the way it reacts with the saliva to inhibit bacteria," Quinn says. In clinical studies, xylitol has shown a reduction in dental caries when used on a regular basis, several times a day."

Lactitol, a sugar alcohol derived from lactose, is another go-to polyol, especially in sugar-free, milk-chocolate-flavored products, Quinn says. Its lower negative heat of solution produces little cooling effect here, resulting in a product with a profile similar to that of the full-sugar chocolate equivalent.

Other polyols that see robust confectionery use include sorbitolwhich youll find in reduced-sugar, chocolate-type products, compressed sweets, chewing gum, lozenges and panned confectionsand maltitol powder, which is another chocolate-product regular. Goulson notes that low levels of maltitol syrup work well in panning applications and improve isomalt in hard candies," while mannitol often acts as a dusting agent in chewing gum. And a key advantage of erythritol," she says, is that its both zero calorienot the case for any other polyoland considered natural," at least in the United States.

Ron Deis, Ph.D., director, global sweetener development, Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, IL,  recommends crystalline maltitol or maltitol syrups for sugar replacement in most confectionery applications. "Maltitol is a dimer (like sucrose) with a molecular weight or size the same as a sugar molecule. So it can act as a stand-alone replacement for sugar." Maltitol contains 75% to 90% the sweetness of sugar and this high sweetness level often allows for sugar substitution without the need for an additional high-intensity sweetener. In hard candies, which primarily rely on corn syrup and sugar, Deis says maltitol syrup can replace both ingredients because the polymer distribution of maltitol syrups can be selected to match the molecular weight or a sugar/corn syrup mixture.


Also known as non-nutritive sweeteners or even just sugar substitutes, high-intensity sweeteners principal function in reduced-sugar confections is to boost the generally lower-than-sugar sweetness of bulk sugar substitutes," Goulson says. Flavor enhancement, depending on the sweetener and the confection profile, can be a secondary function.

While all FDA-approved high-intensity sweetenersaspartame, saccharin, acesulfame potassium, aspartame-acesulfame, neotame, sucralose and steviahave seen some confectionery use, they have no other functional role in confectionery with the exception of aspartame-acesulfame," says Goulson.

This isnt the same sweetener as acesulfame K, Goulson cautions. Nor is it a simple blend of the two. Aspartame-acesulfame is a unique compound of aspartame and acesulfame which finds particular use in chewing gum because of its unusual sweetness delivery," she says. It actually generates a second peak of sweetness, which some gums have capitalized on to create sweetness variation over time to add taste interest." She also notes that aspartame-acesulfame is easier to handle in hard-candy manufacturing than is a mixture of aspartame and acesulfame K. In the latter, the aspartame can have solubility and dispersion issues."

The natural choice

Perhaps the most buzz-generating high-intensity sweetener on the block these days is stevia. The source of the sweetener is the South American Stevia rebaudiana plant, from which processors extract the steviol glycosidesmainly rebaudioside A (reb A)responsible for its sweetness.

Coming from a South American plant turns out to be a big plus for a high-intensity sweetener. Consumers are interested in both calorie reduction and green initiatives," says Peter Sokoloski, private label manager, NOW Foods/Healthco, Bloomingdale, IL. That makes stevia an excellent choice for an alternative sweetener, as it is plant-derived, super-sweet and has virtually zero effect on blood-sugar levels," he says.

From a confectionery standpoint, stevia isnt much of a departure from its high-intensity cousins. Functionally," says James Kempland, vice president of marketing, Sweet Green Fields, Bellingham, WA, artificial and natural high-intensity sweeteners work the same way." That is, they bring sweetness to a confection, and not much else.

But a label-friendly alternative like stevia, Kempland argues, is mildly revolutionary. Stevia is truly the first opportunity to create sugar-free or low-sugar confections that are all-natural," he says. Stevia extracts are 250 times sweeter than sucrose and provide a natural sweet taste with nothing artificial. Given the natural positioning and evolving research to create steviol glycoside blends, consumers will experience a satisfying sweetness, naturally."

Eric Shinsato, technical sales support manager, Ingredion, says stevia-based sweeteners can help reduce calorie levels in chocolate while providing an all-natural label claim. In nonchocolate applications, stevia may be used to enhance or boost sweetness in sugar-free hard candy or reduced-sugar products. It can also replace artificial high-potency sweeteners when a "naturally sweetened" claim is desired.

The sweetener does have a reputation for its licorice-like notes when used at high concentrations. Yet this phenomenon is no different than the metallic taste some consumers note with aspartame," Kempland says.

Sokoloski adds, There is a general perception that all stevia tastes the same, or that the reb A percentage is significant; however, weve found huge success with the enzyme-treated variety of stevia."

Quinn notes that European candy makers have co-opted stevias licorice notes in, not surprisingly, sugar-free licorice. At lower concentrations," she says, these additional tastes are not apparent," which might be why her companys stevia extracts are appearing in sugar-free, chocolate-flavored candies, jelly beans and compressed mints, as well.

Middle of the road

Confectioners struggling to mitigate sweetener off-notes and functional deficits might appreciate a gentle reminder: In pursuit of sugar and calorie reduction, dont let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In other words, you dont have to go for zero. A tasty reduced-sugar confection is preferable to a lousy sugar-free one, and product developers have plenty of tools for achieving that middle-of-the-road.

Deis would concur. "For diabetics, sugar-free is definitely the preferred option. However, a lot of people get locked into thinking sugar-free when  thinking polyols, but you can create a reduced-sugar confection and reduce glycemic response, as well."

"In confectionery, you're generally talking about low serving sizes, so you're not as concerned about tolerance (levels) for a polyol," says Deis. "But as serving sizes increase I would stress that partial replacement of sugar is a very valid approach."

For example, Sometimes a fast-onset sweetener, such as acesulfame K or aspartame-acesulfame, may be used as part of a blended sweetener system to offset the slower initial perception found with aspartame, sucralose or stevia, used together with a low-sweetness polyol," Quinn says.

Or, as Andrea Olson, Ph.D., technical manager, technical service, Tate & Lyle, Decatur, IL, points out, Sweeteners can impact not only sweetness perception, but also flavor perception." The companys crystalline fructose, for example, intensifies fruit, spice, chocolate, caramel and other sweet flavors. Meanwhile, formulators can strategize the onset or perception of different sweeteners and sweetener blends to balance the corresponding perception of acids, such as citric and malic," she says. This is very beneficial to leverage in a confectionery item."

Olson says a blend of crystalline fructose with dextrose and a 63 DE corn syrup produces not only a partial sucrose replacement in jelly candies, but yields a 10% to 15% reduction in sweetener cost without sacrificing desired color, texture or flavor. She notes that,  in a product such as pectin jelly built with crystalline fructose, sucralose and  polydextrose, "we can achieve a 25% reduction in calories."

Thom King, president, Steviva Brands, Inc., Portland, OR, has also experimented with sweetener blends. His company developed a pecan caramel cluster using a blend made with stevia, non-GMO crystalline fructose as a bulking agent and inulin, a prebiotic with browning potential. Because this stevia sweetener contains non-GMO crystalline fructose and inulin and participates in browning, caramelization and the Mailliard reaction," he says, its perfect for both soft, chewy confections and hard candies and mints."

King adds that, in confectionery processes, the sweetener blend reacts much like sugar. Its twice as sweet as sucrose, he notes, so confection manufacturers will need to adjust their recipes slightly. But those are the only adjustments." And, because stevia is heat stable, the sweetener blend works well when making hard-shell candy, where high heat is involved," he says.

Clearly, the days of having to accept either/or" in reduced-sugar confections are drifting into memory. For years, consumers have only had the choice of full-calorie bad-for-me products or zero-calorie artificial products," Kempland says. "Now, consumers have a new choice: good-for-me, natural, right-calorie options." And the lunchroom vending machine will remain safe for years to come.

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in consumer food science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected].

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