Research shows that year after year, consumers’ attitude towards caloric sweeteners—namely table sugar and refined syrups—becomes more negative. This opinion is aligned with contemporary notions of health and wellness, where empty sweetener calories are the enemy. According to the USDA, dairy is one of the largest sugar-using sectors in the food industry, accounting for 7% of sugar deliveries.

“Excess sugar concerns remain front and center on consumers’ radar of ingredients to control,” said David Wright, senior manager-marketing, Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. “As we’ve seen for years in Hartman Group research, sugar continues to be a key area of concern across all dimensions of health and wellness lifestyles, ranging from those consumers most involved to those least involved.”

Hartman Group’s report “Health & Wellness: Reimaging Wellbeing Amid COVID-19” finds that more than half of consumers (51%) say they are decreasing high fructose corn syrup intake, followed by 42% who say they are avoiding or decreasing refined sugar.

“With negative perceptions of sugar widespread, consumers worry about both its immediate and cumulative, long-term effects, including weight management, metabolism, inflammation, gut health and cognition, although exactly what those effects are will differ by how engaged consumers are with health and wellness lifestyles,” Wright said. “Overall, consumers are finding ways to incorporate sweetness into their eating and drinking routines by managing occasions and reaching for what they view as more healthful sweetener choices.”


A healthful approach

Sweetener is a sensitive topic for dairy foods formulators. Consumers expect products such as flavored milk, ice cream and yogurt to taste sweet. While at the same time, they also know that consuming too much sugar may be detrimental to health. Then factor in a growing number of consumers who prefer simple and short ingredients statements, as well as natural and organic positionings, and formulators find themselves struggling to deliver on taste and mouthfeel while also reporting fewer added sugars on product labels.

Many dairy processors are finding that a back-to-basics approach of sweetening simply with sugar – just not too much – appeals to today’s shoppers. They see the word sugar on the ingredient statement and it resonates.

This is beneficial to processors, as sugar’s sweetening properties are unmatched by any other ingredient. With sugar, chemically known as sucrose, the basic taste of sweet comes on slowly. It builds roundness and then slowly abates. Sugar also serves a number of functions. For example, sugar binds moisture in ice cream, which assists with freeze-thaw stability. Sugar also contributes solids, which impacts the mouthfeel and viscosity of many dairy products. No other single ingredient both sweetens and functions like sucrose.

Most commercial sucrose is obtained from either sugarcane or sugar beets through just a few steps. The former is gaining traction in the organic and natural sectors, as sugarcane has not been genetically modified. On the other hand, nearly 95% of sugar beets harvested today have undergone some genetic modification. Despite the fact that both cane and beet sugar is 99.95% sucrose, there are some people that believe cane sugar tastes and performs differently than beet sugar in certain applications. And that difference is often perceived favorably.

Regardless of source, sugar not only provides a natural, well-rounded sweet taste, it functions as a flavor carrier, contributes to appearance (think Maillard browning in caramel variegate), enhances mouthfeel and provides texture. It may also serve as a nutrition source for microorganisms during fermentation in yogurt and it possesses humectant properties to assist with extending product shelf life in inclusions.   

There’s this overarching trend of a return to sweeteners direct from Mother Nature. This includes honey, plant syrups and fruit purees. An added bonus with many such natural sweeteners is that they may bring color, flavor, nutrition and functional benefits to the product.

Honey, for example, is available in more than 3,000 varieties, each with a unique flavor and color. This provides processors the ability to create multiple sensory experiences by varying just one ingredient. Honey comes with some added bonuses, as compared to sucrose. Honey is slightly sweeter, allowing processors to achieve a targeted sweetness with less volume. Honey also has the ability to smooth or mask the flavor profile of functional ingredients that carry off flavors.

Most people think of sweetness when they think of honey, but there is also a tartness due to the ingredient’s acidity. This unique flavor profile helps balance flavors without overwhelming them with sweetness. This acidity (average pH 3.91) also helps inhibit mold growth in some applications, including yogurt.

Another natural viscous sweetener is agave syrup, also known as agave nectar. It is produced from the juice contained in the core of the blue agave plant and is light in color with a neutral taste, smooth texture and notable sweetness. Agave syrup naturally contains a high percentage of fructose, making it about 25% sweeter than sugar. It is a good substitute for honey in vegan formulations.  

Filtering determines the agave nectar’s flavor and color. The rule of thumb is that one cup of sugar can be replaced with two-thirds cup agave, along with a minor adjustment to added liquids. Depending on the application, agave nectar may add richness, as well as enhance other flavors.

Two other pourable and pumpable viscous natural sweeteners include maple syrup and molasses. Concentrated fruit slurries also qualify. Food and beverage manufacturers appreciate the ease of working with such liquid sweeteners, as they can be metered and dispensed for quick dissolution. They are also more sanitary than their dry counterparts, as particles do not linger in the air. They have varying degrees of sweetness, with some contributing color, flavor and even nutrition to an application.   


High-intensity sweeteners

There are a range of high-intensity sweeteners available to formulators. Acesulfame potassium (ace-k), advantame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin and sucralose are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as food additives and are considered to be artificial sweeteners, while allulose, monkfruit and stevia are regulated as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) ingredients and considered to be natural sweeteners. There are other GRAS ingredients with sweetening effects, including sugar alcohols, fibers and some flavor enhancers.

In recent years, most dairy foods formulators have been relying on allulose, monkfruit and stevia. They provide natural sweetness to better-for-you dairy foods.

Allulose is the most recent to enter the market and has been well received by ice cream and yogurt manufacturers because it functions and tastes like sucrose. Considered a rare sugar, allulose is absorbed by the body, but not metabolized, making it nearly calorie free. This is why it is not declared as an added sugar on nutrition labels.

Allulose is one of the many types of monosaccharides that exist in nature in small quantities and can be found in certain fruits, including figs, raisins and jackfruit. Allulose has a texture and performance behavior like sugar, providing comparable bulk, sweetness and functionality.  

Monk fruit, also known as luo han guo, is a small, vine-grown, subtropical fruit that gets its intense sweetness from naturally occurring antioxidants called mogrosides, which are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Monk fruit juice concentrate is one of the most common ingredient formats and is about 15 times sweeter than sugar. It is made by crushing the fruit then infusing the crushed fruit with hot water to release its natural sweet juice. The sweet infusion is then filtered to clarify and stabilize the monk fruit juice.  

Stevia currently reigns as the most popular natural high-intensity sweetener. Stevia leaves contain dozens of sweet components; however, the best-tasting comprise only a small percent of the stevia leaf. Suppliers in the stevia space continue to invest in technologies to differentiate their products and make them more affordable and better tasting.   

In many instances, blends of these three high-intensity sweeteners provide the most desirable sweetening curve. And sometimes, just a touch of sugar is what is needed to make the taste complete, naturally.  


Dairy can be everything

The “everything bagel” in dairy phenomena started in early 2018 when now Danone North America, White Plains, NY, introduced Wallaby Organic refrigerated dips made with a base of Australian-inspired nonfat yogurt. One of the varieties was everything bagel. The flavor then went cold, like really cold, meaning frozen.

Pretty Cool Ice Cream in Chicago released an everything bagel frozen dessert in collaboration with nearby Steingold’s Deli just in time for pandemic-style Hannukah 2020 gatherings. Soon, Jeni’s Ice Cream, Columbus, Ohio, followed with a special-edition offering in 2021 and now is bringing it back for a limited time.

The everything bagel flavor trend likely started when Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe’s introduced the Everything But the Bagel Potato Chips in 2017, followed by the Everything But the Bagel Seasoning two years later. The latter developed a cult-like following where consumers were adding it to everything and posting photos on social media. It got marketers thinking.

The mixture typically contains sesame and poppy seeds, along with minced onion and garlic and sea salt. Sometimes cracked pepper and black sesame are included.

Strange combination for dairy foods? Not really. Think bagel and cream cheese. It oddly works in ice cream, too, for fans of onion and garlic. It is great in sour cream- or yogurt-based dips, which private-label retailer Aldi Inc., offers occasionally using a Greek yogurt base.

And it works in cottage cheese. HP Hood, Boston, now offers a limited-edition everything bagel option throughout New England and New York. This seasoning blend also includes flaxseed.

New York-based Whisps debuted Whisps Cheese & Pretzel Bites Everything at Natural Products Expo West, held March 8 to 12 in Anaheim, Calif. Real parmesan cheese, pretzel pieces and everything seasoning gets combined and baked into a bite-sized ball for a grab-and-go snack ready for anything.