Ask The Expert, in collaboration with the Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST)

Ask The Expert: sugar reduction in soft drinks

By Vicky Collett FIFST CSci

- Last updated on GMT

Collett: 'New ingredients are being introduced all the time'
Collett: 'New ingredients are being introduced all the time'

Related tags: Drinks, Ingredients & nutrition, Regulation, Npd

Vicky Collett, (consultant) global quality manager for a joint venture between PepsiCo and Unilever, explores the challenges of sugar reduction in soft drinks.

The joint venture is responsible for several different iced tea brands. Collett is responsible for quality from concept through to manufacturing including consumer protection and satisfaction. A typical day can involve anything from supporting risk assessments for new product development, leading incident management to training manufacturing sites in company procedures and processes. 

How did you end up working in this field?

After doing a degree in microbiology at the University of Liverpool, I was keen to use the technical skills I’d learnt. I didn’t initially plan to work in the food or beverage industry but on securing my first role in beverages I found it a brilliant place to utilise my technical skills’.

As an experienced professional, what would you say are the food science and technology challenges relating to sugar reduction in beverages?

It is important to create the same great taste, texture and mouthfeel in reduced sugar products to meet consumer expectations. Product shelf life and stability need to be maintained to support commercial needs in market and protect food safety.

In beverages, sugars perform a key range of functions, for example, sweetness and mouthfeel as well as non-consumer facing aspects such as water activity and a positive contribution to open shelf life stability of syrups. Another example of this in development is sugar acting as a carrying agent to aid the dissolution of other ingredients.

As such during product development it is important to consider all the functions that sugar performs in the beverage, not just sweetness.

When utilising alternatives to sugar they should be thoroughly risk assessed. For example, honey is a common alternative but requires careful handling during manufacturing, thermal treatment to manage any potential pathogen risk and consideration of any regulatory requirements for labelling of honey containing products. These conditions can differ quite significantly in comparison to handling and using sugar.

Sugar reduction reformulation, therefore, nearly always involves using a combination of various ingredients and flavourings to replace the role of sugars in the product.

The consumer perception of replacing sugar with ‘artificial’ or natural sweetener additives in reformulation can vary widely across our global business so our approaches need to be carefully chosen to ensure a positive consumer reaction.

As a business we have have been playing our part to reduce sugar in our products for more than a decade. In line with both Unilever and PepsiCo’s commitments, we pledged to reduce sugar in Pepsi Lipton ready-to-drink teas by 25% by 2020, compared to a 2010 baseline. By 2018, we exceeded this target, removing 26% of sugar.

The average sugar content of our RTD [ready to drink] portfolio is less than of 5g sugar per 100ml. We are continuing with an ambitious sugar reduction programme, offering consumers a choice of lower sugar options, with less sweetness, as well as ones with no added sugar.

In this challenging area of sugar reduction reformulation, what types of approach or best practices exist at the moment and where can we find them?

Guidelines have been published by Public Health England (PHE) on sugar reduction for all sectors of the food and drinks industry​.

The three approaches which PHE recommend the food industry can take to reduce sugar are: reformulating products to lower the levels of sugar present; reducing the portion size and/or the number of calories in single-serve products; and shifting consumer purchasing towards lower or no added sugar products. 

IFST has knowledge resources available on their website​ which explain what sugars are, describe their technological functions in foods and share recent presentations on sweeteners and their role in food and drinks.

The UK Food and Drink Federation also provides a helpful overview on their website​ covering sugars with links to recent background documents on sugars and carbohydrates and government advice and requirements. 

Sweetener companies are providing sugar replacement alternatives which can be particularly helpful.

Various specialist food technical service providers have expert advisors and are releasing webinars on sugar reduction and reformulation which can provide support on approaches to try. With developments in ingredient technology, for example, Stevia/Reb A types and blends of natural sweeteners and an increased interest in sugar reduction means new ingredients are being introduced all the time.

Using flavourings with modifying properties can also mask adverse flavours such as bitterness, astringency or metallic tastes can be particularly useful. Flavour house specialists can provide options to try with your product recipes.

Humectants to modify free water activity of products, addition of soluble fibre ingredients such as ‘Promitor’ or pectins can alter the mouth feel of a product helping to balance out the impact of removal of sugars. These approaches in combination can all help with sugar reduction reformulation.

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Ask the Expert offers a regular source of advice on technical matters from industry professionals who are all IFST members and has been created with the help of the IFST.

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