CHICAGO — Added sugar has long been the nemesis of real dairy products, namely flavored milk and yogurt. Marketers of plant-based alternatives are experiencing similar criticism.

Swapping caloric sweeteners with non-caloric ones is an option, but not always the best, depending on application. That’s because caloric sweeteners do more than just sweeten.

“Sugar reduction in plant-based dairy applications can be complex,” said Christine Addington, senior technical service representative, Cargill, Minneapolis. “While we often think of sugar imparting sweetness and enhancing flavor, it also contributes many functional benefits, which in turn impact mouthfeel, texture, moisture content, microbial control and more.”

The Beneo Global Plant-Based Survey 2021 showed that 73% of global flexitarian consumers find it very important dairy alternatives have a similar full-bodied mouthfeel like products containing dairy. Texture is as important as taste.

“In frozen desserts, sugar has a major impact on freezing point depression,” Addington said. “Pull sugar out of the recipe and you can end up with a very crunchy dessert, not the smooth, creamy, indulgent texture consumers accept. As a result, successful sugar reduction often requires a combination of sweeteners, bulking agents and texturizers.”

Roni Eckert, senior food scientist, Wixon, St. Francis, Wis., said, “These functions are even more important in plant-based applications because you need to formulate a product that replicates the function of sugar in the dairy item. Since milk is technically an emulsion, when replacing that in your food, it’s not the same as replacing with water. You must account for all of the sensory effects of a dairy-based milk item that contains fat and sugar.”

It’s not just about replacing sugar. It’s about replacing the milkfat, dairy proteins and sugar system, which is complex.

Sarah Diedrich, marketing director – global sweetening and texturizing, ADM, Chicago, said the sugar inherent to milk — lactose — is crucial to the process of making yogurt because traditional yogurt cultures ferment lactose into lactic acid, thereby coagulating the milk into yogurt.

Plant-based yogurt cultures require a carbohydrate source to provide a similar fermentation for both texture and flavor development. Chr. Hansen, Milwaukee, has developed a culture system specific for plant-based yogurts. It includes customizable starter cultures, probiotics and bioprotective strains.

“Because the composition of plant-based is more varied than traditional dairy products, it is particularly important to utilize cultures expertly selected to meet the performance demands of dairy-free applications,” said Ross Crittenden, senior director for commercial development.

Diedrich said, “Sugar also prevents crystallization in standard ice cream and frozen desserts, enabling easy scooping and a creamier texture. Sugar’s characteristics of adding flavor, enhancing mouthfeel and extending shelf life are equally important for both alternative and traditional dairy products.”


Sugar content matters

Sugar content remains a key influencer for America’s grocery shoppers, with 62% reporting they are likely to check the amount of sugar before purchasing a new product, according to a study on sweetener claim impact, sponsored by Cargill and conducted in 2021 with about 1,200 US grocery shoppers.

The survey showed Americans are more likely to check the amount of sugar versus look for a specific sweetener or claim. It also found evidence sweetener claims may influence purchases. Those that fared best in the Cargill study typically implied “natural” or “no artificial,” including “naturally sweetened” or “made with a natural sweetener.”

“Products with these on-pack labels are often perceived as less processed and more healthful,” said Carla Saunders, senior marketing manager for Cargill’s high-intensity sweetener lines. “That aligns with the demands of today’s more health-conscious consumers, who are seeking to manage their health and wellness goals through food and beverage choices.”

Among sugar/calorie claims, “lower in sugar” had the greatest purchase impact across all demographic groups. Claims around sweeteners, sugar and calories had highest impact in categories consumers associate more closely with nutrition, such as yogurt, cereals and snack bars.

ADM Outside Voice consumer trends research showed 59% of consumers state the type of sweetener is important when choosing new milk alternatives. On top of that, sugar reduction becomes 61% more important for shoppers searching for products they consider to have a clean label.

“Consumers are more likely to examine alternative dairy product labels for added sugar content, as well as for sweeteners they find familiar and recognizable, such as stevia, agave, honey, tapioca and rice syrups,” Diedrich said.


Toolbox of ingredients

To help brands better meet these evolving expectations, suppliers offer an array of ingredients to provide sweetness, taste and mouthfeel. The systems approach often includes a flavor modulating system to assist with off notes from the plant-based ingredients.

Wixon, for example, provides flavor solutions to assist with matching the sweetness perception of sugar without the lingering effects of high-intensity sweeteners. When combined with soluble fibers and hydrocolloids, it provides a sensory experience that helps mimic the dairy version.

“Flavors with modulating properties can help build back the perception of sweetness when sugar is reduced in a product,” said Erik Williams, applications manager – health and wellness for beverage, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, NY. “Masking flavors can smooth out the taste profile and eliminate off notes, especially when costs restraints require use of low-purity stevia sweetener.”

Thom King, chief executive officer, Icon Foods, Portland, Ore., said, “In formulating flavored ready-to-drink plant-based milks, we have leaned into fibers such as inulin, fructooligosaccharides and soluble tapioca fiber to increase viscosity and mouthfeel. All of Icon’s formulas focus on clean label sugar reduction and those fibers certainly lend a hand.

“In frozen desserts, we use a combination of allulose and erythritol. They both help with the freezing depression point, while allulose also aids in overrun. Because both of those sweeteners are 70% as sweet as sugar, we augment with high-intensity sweeteners such as monk fruit and stevia. To vanquish off-notes, we use a thaumatin-based sweetener modulator that helps bring out flavors and the sweet, lingering effect overrides any off-notes from high-intensity sweeteners, as well as pea proteins and soy.”

Dairy frozen desserts tend to have a thick, creamy mouthfeel from the cream and milk proteins. Non-dairy frozen desserts, on the other hand, rely on hydrocolloids to create that mouthfeel, which may be perceived as slimy if not carefully crafted.

“Cargill has a broad portfolio of texturizers, emulsifiers and plant proteins that play in this space,” Addington said. “Our soluble rice flour, for example, and our new soluble corn fiber help build back mouthfeel and contribute to texture that is especially critical in sugar-reduced applications. Equally important, they label simply on ingredient statements, with straightforward nomenclature that consumers can understand.”

The company’s newest sweetening system combines its Reb M stevia sweetener with a natural flavor. The system helps mask off notes such as astringency, beany and earthy, without muting the system’s characterizing flavors.

“It’s a true game-changer for reduced-sugar, plant-based dairy alternatives, especially for those products that are high in plant protein,” Addington said.

Diedrich added, “Our innovative stevia is a zero-calorie solution that not only reduces sugar, but also meets consumers’ expectations for clean labels, as shoppers may perceive stevia to be ‘closer to nature.’ By maximizing the glycosides that taste the best while minimizing bitter and astringent notes through our proprietary approach to stevia extraction and purification, our stevia provides superior taste to alternative dairy offerings. Additionally, it provides 15% more sweetness than other steviol glycosides, with significantly fewer off notes, mitigating the need for added taste modifiers or flavor maskers and further supporting clean label targets.”

Beneo’s chicory root fibers aid in sugar and fat reduction while delivering the benefits of prebiotic fiber. Added sugars can further be reduced by incorporating Beneo’s isomalt.

“It’s the only sugar replacer derived exclusively from sugar beet,” said Kyle Krause, product manager of functional fibers and carbohydrates in North America for Beneo, Inc., Parsippany, NJ. “It has a sweetening profile similar to sucrose but with only half the calories. It has a very low glycemic response and tooth-friendly characteristics. Our rice starch, flour and syrup help capture the essence of dairy products and can be used in a variety of dairy-free recipes. Unlike soy, which often has a bitter aftertaste, rice is neutral in taste. Rice molecules are similar in size to fat molecules so they can replace fat in many applications and ensure a pleasant, creamy mouthfeel. They can be used in dairy-free alternatives without the use of thickeners or gelling agents.”