The white stuff

Related tags British sugar Food Food technology Sugar

It's only when you start trying to remove or replace it that you realise what a versatile and important ingredient sugar actually is, British Sugar's head of food science tells Elaine Watson

What's powdery, white, some would say addictive, and guaranteed to get politicians frothing at the mouth? No, not crack cocaine, but something 99% of us have in our store cupboards: sugar. As innocuous as it might seem, the white stuff lurking in our favourite foods and drinks is rapidly turning into public enemy number one as we look for someone to blame for our expanding waistlines.

Which makes life interesting if your employer is called British Sugar, says the firm's head of food science Dr Julian Cooper, who is frequently wheeled out in defence of its primary ingredient.

"I work for a sugar company," says Cooper. "And I'm a big advocate of sugar, so inevitably, when I defend it, people say, 'Well, you would say that, wouldn't you...' so I'm on a highway to nothing."

Actually, he has a pretty good case. Sugar, as Cooper frequently reminds nutritionists on the warpath, has four calories per gram. To put this into perspective: fat has nine calories per gram and alcohol has seven.

Moreover, contrary to popular belief, sugar consumption is going down. In the 1920s, says Cooper, the British were wolfing down 125g of sugar a day. Today, in the age of diet cola and sugar-free gum, they are eating 90g a day. The difference is they're not burning it off - a problem that politicians might be better advised to address rather than demonising the contents of our shopping trolleys, hints Cooper. "The most exercise some kids do is this [he twiddles his thumbs to imitate a teenager sending a text]."

The problem with sugar reduction and replacement - which manufacturers are being forced to explore with the advent of front-of-pack nutritional labelling - is that sugar is a natural substance with multiple functionalities, acting among other things, as a preservative, bulking agent, texturiser, sweetener, stabiliser and flavour extender.

Take it away, and you've got to find something that does all of these things, which means replacing a natural ingredient with a cocktail of additives and other ingredients which none of us have in our store cupboards at home.

This tension between the drive to sell more low-fat and low-sugar products and the corresponding drive to make more 'natural' foods is therefore only going to increase, predicts Cooper.

"I often receive calls from manufacturers and retailers saying they want to 'simplify' their labels - but they also want less fat or less sugar in order to move from a red to an amber or green 'traffic light' on the label, for example. But you can't always do both."

There can also be unforeseen and dangerous consequences of removing salt or sugar without understanding the function it serves, he says, citing the example of a company that removed sugar from its hazelnut yoghurts in the late 1980s and caused an outbreak of botulism.

Likewise, many manufacturers have also discovered that removing sugar, which has bulking properties, can simply increase the percentage of fat per 100g, increasing rather than reducing the calorie count, which rather defeats the purpose of reformulating in the first place, he points out.

"A lot of my role is education," says Cooper, who gained a PhD in carbohydrate chemistry from the University of Birmingham in the 1980s before joining British Sugar. "And I don't think new product development by traffic lights is really helping."

Food science skills shortage

It's not just the public that needs educating, of course - which leads onto Cooper's second favourite topic: the dearth of science graduates entering the food industry and a general suspicion of food scientists by the media and NGOs.

"Read the papers," says Cooper. "One day probiotics are good for you, the next day they're bad. That leads to a loss of credibility."

Actors playing scientists on US television drama CSI look sexy in their white coats and subdued lighting using GCMS (Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry) to solve a murder case, he points out.

But food technologists using GCMS to work out the composition of a flavour sample do not have quite so much sex appeal. "We're marginally more respected than second hand car salesmen." And this, he says, is a real shame. "Where are the food scientists of tomorrow?

While novelty in ingredients and food technologies was all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s, things have changed since then, says Cooper. "I don't think there will be another genuinely new food ingredient developed in the next 10-20 years. By new, I mean things that are made chemically. Look at sucralose: it was discovered in 1976, but it didn't gain regulatory approval in the EU until 2004." The kind of time and money needed to develop, test and authorise something like this is simply not available anymore to an industry operating on the kind of margins the food sector is these days, he suggests. "The return on investment isn't there. You don't get the patent cover.

"Genuinely new ingredients are few and far between. But there is so much you can do that hasn't been explored by combining existing ingredients in novel ways. Physical processing can also deliver interesting materials - and I suppose nanotechnology is a logical extension of that. There is also a lot of interesting work going on in the area of satiety that interests me, for example."

Growing understanding of how our mouths and noses communicate with our brain to tell us something is sweet could also help product developers in future, predicts Cooper. "There is some fascinating work in the US and Europe on how we detect and perceive sweet things."

Understanding how our tongues perceive texture has also helped British Sugar develop some interesting new products by playing around with particle sizes, says Cooper. "When it comes to sugar, size definitely matters; your tongue can detect anything over 30 microns in size."

By reducing the particle size to eight microns, British Sugars's new 'silk' sugar effectively confuses the tongue into thinking sugar is fat, says Cooper. "But this also opens up new applications such as chews containing functional ingredients or vitamins where you don't have to cook the mixture, so you can protect the bioactive ingredients."

As for new sweeteners coming onto the market that potentially compete with sugar, a few promising ones have emerged, although none of them have the same functionality as sugar, claims Cooper.

Erythritol is "interesting, as it's a small molecule that passes across the nephritic barrier - ie through your kidneys - and is excreted in urine rather than ending up in the gastrointestinal tract, whereas other polyols are not broken down and end up in the colon taking water with them. But it's also got a strong cooling effect."

Stevia, the high intensity sweetener that has hit the headlines in recent months following news that Coca-Cola and Cargill are investing heavily in it, is also fascinating, says Cooper. "Yes, it's natural in its crude form, so that's going to appeal to consumers. It's a leaf. But once you start separating out the compounds, steviosides, rebaudiosides and so on... to me, that's not natural."

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