Weight management: it’s in the blood

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

Blood sugar management: there’s been a revival in interest in the glycaemic index
Blood sugar management: there’s been a revival in interest in the glycaemic index

Related tags: Sugar

There is renewed interest in blood sugar management as an approach to combat obesity.

Key points

While fats are not completely off the hook, there’s no doubt that the target of anti-obesity action has shifted towards sugar.

“There is a large focus on sugar as being one of the main drivers of obesity today,”​ says Sara Petersson, nutrition analyst at Euromonitor International.

“Contributing little or no health benefit and relatively high amounts of energy to the diet, sugar has become an easy nutrient to blame for the obesity crisis,”​ she adds.

Anti-sugar sentiment has been building for a while, but it was last year’s UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition report that sealed its fate, with the surprise recommendation that only 5% of people’s daily energy should come from free sugars.

This guidance was underpinned by evidence from studies, such as Euromonitor International’s Passport Nutrition research tool, that link sugar consumption with an increase in body weight.

With sugar now so inherently linked to obesity, it’s logical that much of the focus in dealing with the epidemic is centred on lowering consumption.

But while some sweeteners may have a role to play in achieving this, there has been a re-emergence of a more holistic approach to reducing intake – that of blood sugar management.

High intensity sweeteners (return to top)

To observers, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the solution to sugar reduction does not lie in high intensity sweeteners.

“High intensity sweeteners have long had a consumer perception problem, stemming from mistrust regarding whether or not the sweeteners contribute to the onset of cancer and other debilitating conditions,”​ says John George, ingredients analyst at Euromonitor.

The huge demand for natural products and ingredients in recent years has also meant consumer perception of artificial ingredients has become increasingly negative, he says.

“Consequently, it is difficult for manufacturers to incorporate artificial high intensity sweeteners without alienating a large subset of consumers,”​ George adds.

Dietician Dr Carrie Ruxton agrees, citing “lack of consumer acceptability, problems mimicking the clean taste of sucrose and consumer and retailer desire for clean label”​ as reasons why these sweeteners aren’t the answer.

Natural sweeteners (return to top)

Natural high intensity sweeteners could form part of the solution, but George points out that the current options of stevia and monk fruit have taste issues that need to be overcome if they are to be used without the addition of sugar or an artificial ingredient to mask off-notes.

Then there are increasingly popular ‘alternative’ natural sweeteners, such as coconut sugar, agave syrup and brown rice syrup.

Ruxton gives these on-trend alternatives short shrift. “They are still ‘free sugars’ – so you may as well have sucrose, as it’s cheaper and has a more acceptable taste to the consumer,”​ she says.

George is slightly more generous. “I think that for a lot of people, the natural element of alternative sweeteners, like coconut sugar, honey and agave nectar, is appealing.

“Other factors like low glycaemic index – as is the case for coconut sugar – also promote consumption,”​ he says.

However, he would “stop short”​ of describing any of these as the answer to sugar reduction, as nutritionally, there are still question-marks, due to the high fructose content.

“Beyond this, there is the issue of price, with refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup much cheaper to produce, meaning displacing them as the sweetener of choice, at least in the eyes of manufacturers, will be difficult to achieve,”​ he says.

Non-digestible carbohydrates (return to top)

Those who follow the EU Nutrition and Health Claims approvals process will know that a number of non-digestible carbohydrates are now able to claim a lower blood glucose rise when used as sugar replacers.

Since June, Tereos’s fibre, Olygose’s alpha-galacto-oligosaccharides, Roquette’s wheat and corn starch and sourced fibre and chicory root fibres produced by Beneo, Sensus and Cosucra-Groupe Warcoing are among the ingredients that are able to take advantage of the article 13.5 claim.

Could this signal the start of a different approach to sugar reduction and weight management?

Michael Bond, product marketing leader at DuPont Nutrition & Health, points out that the interest in blood sugar management is a revival of the interest in glycaemic index of the early to mid 2000s, when reduced carb diets such as Atkins went mainstream.

“The focus of these diets was almost totally on weight management, and while the terminology and specific interest around glycaemic index has waned to some extent, the underlying concept of blood glucose management has continued to be of scientific and consumer interest,”​ he says.

Beyond simple weight management (return to top)

The major difference, Bond adds, is that this interest now extends beyond simple, generic weight management concepts, to include concepts as diverse as controlled energy release, reducing the risk of pre-diabetes and diabetes, promoting cardiovascular health and enhancing satiety.

“As such, demand for blood sugar management and related health claims, and the non-digestible carbohydrates that facilitate these claims, continues to grow,”​ he says.

DuPont’s non digestible carbohydrates Xivia xylitol, OsmoAid lactitol and the soluble fibre Litesse polydextrose are all within the remit of the EU blood glucose management claim, and can be used to directly replace sugar in food and beverages.

The company also has a range of hydrocolloids that are able to compensate for the loss of structure and texture often encountered when reducing sugar.

Beneo, which has EU health claims for its chicory fibres (oligofructose and inulin), Palatinose (isomaltulose) and Isomalt sugar replacer, also predicts blood sugar will play a bigger role in weight management in future.

“People are realising that a high glycaemic diet, with its subsequent insulin release for down-regulation of high blood sugar levels, can lead to the onset of type 2 diabetes and obesity,”​ says Anke Sentko, vice president of regulatory affairs and nutrition communication at Beneo.

The importance of postprandial glycaemia (return to top)

And it’s not just the manufacturers of non-digestible carbohydrates that are singing their praises. In 2013, an international committee of experts in carbohydrate research released a statement that recognised the importance of postprandial (post-meal) glycaemia in overall health.

Ruxton is also a strong advocate of non-digestible carbohydrates, as they “help manufacturers to cut fat and sugar, and they seem to have gut health benefits – although they’ve yet to secure a health claim for that”​.

Sentko also makes the point that although we are currently seeing the demonisation of sucrose in the media, it isn’t the only high glycaemic carbohydrate.

“Oligosaccharides and polysaccharides, such as maltodextrin, are worse than sucrose with regards to their glycaemic response. Hopefully, now that health claims for lowering blood sugar are available, consumers will begin to be able to make lower glycaemic and insulinaemic food choices,”​ she says.

Awareness needed (return to top)

However, there is still an awareness job to be done, if blood sugar management is to become a mainstream approach.

“Communicating the health and wellness benefits of blood sugar management beyond simple sugar reduction continues to be a challenge from a regulatory and a consumer education perspective,”​ notes Bond.

Similarly, Ruxton isn’t convinced that blood sugar management has legs as a strategy for weight management “unless more work is done to educate consumers”​.

“I think consumers see blood sugar management as more related to how energetic we feel throughout the day, for example, sugar highs and lows or sugar slumps,” ​she says.

While the lack of consumer awareness will need to be addressed, it is clear that a movement towards ingredients concerned with lowering glycaemic response rates is gathering pace.

The war on obesity may not be bloodless after all.

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