In hindsight, Eran Baniel, the CEO and co-founder of Israel-based sugar reduction company DouxMatok, admits he was naive.
In 2014, Baniel and his father founded the company to commercialize an ingredient solution allowing manufacturers to reduce the sugar in a product by 40%, but retain the same sweetness. The promising idea has enabled the company to raise more than $30 million in funding and strike partnerships with European sugar company Südzucker and a North American sugar refiner that has not formally been announced.
But there are no products with DouxMatok on the market even though many consumers worldwide are trying to reduce sugar intake and redesigned nutrition labels in different countries are requiring manufacturers to disclose how much of the sweetener is in products.
As Baniel found out, reducing sugar is not quite as simple as handing manufacturers a product that allows them to use less of it. He said much of the last year has been spent on working to make DouxMatok work in different situations.
"Rather than try and provide our sugar as a drop-in solution — you have 1 kilogram of sugar, take half a kilogram of DouxMatok and life is gonna be great — it doesn't work like that," Baniel said. "Sweetness is just one attribute of the sugar. There is the color, the mouthfeel, et cetera, et cetera, that you need to address."
Baniel said DouxMatok now works to add what he calls "pluses" — different ingredients and substances that simulate the functional performance of sugar when there is less. Often manufacturers want those "pluses" to increase the nutritional quality of their products as well.
"The most popular and successful 'pluses' we've been able to provide are proteins — even chickpea protein — that has no aftertaste at all. And nutritional fibers. And suddenly you get a completely different, improved premium proposal," he said.
People worldwide have used sugar in food for hundreds of years. Today's consumers know what items made with sugar look, smell, feel and taste like. And while it's a challenge to make something that tastes as good with less of the sweetener, products using less sugar or other sweeteners also need to look, feel, behave and smell the same. Sugar browns baked goods and helps remove water. It lightly coats the tongue. And it helps keep ice cream soft.
But reducing sugar is a multipronged challenge, especially in products where consumers are used to it.
Alex Woo, CEO of W2O Food Innovation and an expert in reformulations to reduce sugar, said diet soda has gotten consumers to accept the mouthfeel of a beverage without sugar, making beverage reformulations possible with relatively little additional work.
But in food, Woo said, you have to do more to make sugar substitutes work.
"When you take out sugar in chocolate, all of a sudden your chocolate pieces are half as big," he said.
Finding the right solutions
While sugar is a popular ingredient, it is far from the only sweetener out there.
Food scientists have developed other sweeteners using fruits and plants, but they behave differently than sugar. They don't have the same caloric load, can be used in smaller quantities, are safe for diabetics and others who are sensitive to sugar, and don't cause cavities. Stevia, monk fruit, erythritol and allulose are all natural ingredients being used more frequently to reduce the amount of sugar in products.
But like DouxMatok, all of these options either require a smaller quantity of ingredients to get to the same level of sweetness, or the ingredient is completely different when it comes to its performance compared to sugar.
Gareth Armanious, a technical director at research firm PreScouter, said the reasons for the change in function are obvious. "If something is 100 or 1,000 times sweeter, for conversation's sake, than sucrose, it's going to have an impact on the sort of bulk properties of the ingredient mixture," he said.
"Rather than try and provide our sugar as a drop-in solution — you have 1 kilogram of sugar, take half a kilogram of DouxMatok and life is gonna be great — it doesn't work like that. Sweetness is just one attribute of the sugar. There is the color, the mouthfeel, et cetera, et cetera, that you need to address."
Co-founder and CEO, DouxMatok
Ingredients giant Cargill has a massive portfolio of different sweeteners — both conventional ones including corn syrups and new ones incorporating stevia and sugar alcohols. Wade Schmelzer, Cargill's principal food scientist who has worked extensively the company's stevia portfolio, said there is no single sweetener that can easily replace sugar. Each has a different level of sweetness, plus different functionalities.
"I think there's been a lot of work looking at, 'Is there a silver bullet sweetener out there?' And I haven't seen anything that behaves that particular way," Schmelzer said.
When Cargill is developing new ingredients, they are focused on trying to close that behavioral gap for specific categories, Schmelzer said. There are some areas where they have done that like a product in the ViaTech stevia portfolio specifically designed for sugar reduction in milk.
Schmelzer said customer requests for specific sugar reductions tend to be the starting point for some of their ingredients. And considering all of the natural sweeteners out there — as well as the multiple steviol glycosides that can be extracted from the plant's leaves — there's a lot to work with.
Regardless of the functional challenges, reformulation experts said they are mostly concerned with taste.
"There are people who claim they have something better than sugar. But I doubt it, because the taste of sugar is different from all the sugar substitutes right now," Woo said. "Some come very, very close, like stevia ... and allulose. ... But nothing really can be better."
Woo said this may change as companies advance in both their technology and neuroscience understanding.
There are ingredients that are more commonly used to make up for some of the functional challenges that arise when sugar is reduced. Inulin and chicory root fiber are two of the most common ones. Baniel said DouxMatok has used chickpea protein as well.
"It'll depend on the application," Schmelzer said. "I think as we get into bakery products, texture becomes really important. If we're in other products like a beverage space, whether it's a regular carbonated soft drink or alcoholic beverage ... taste becomes really important, ... essentially trying to deliver the same type of sweetness and the same timing of sweetness as sugar, which is kind of the holy grail of delivering on sweetness."
Julia DesRochers, principal scientist at Tate & Lyle, specializes in replacing sugar in baked goods. In the bakery segment, the tenderness, creaminess, taste and texture are key attributes that any reformulated product has to get right.
However, sugar also plays a role in how much items expand when baked and the volume of finished items. It also acts as a natural preservative because it captures water in the finished product, DesRochers said.
Cutting back on sugar tends to make batter less viscous. And because sugar is good for trapping air, finished products tend to fall more flat. Solutions to overcome this in baked goods include adding dietary fibers. Sometimes eggs or other leavening helps maintain the texture.
But every product is different. DesRochers said she was recently asked to come up with a simple way to show a client how sugar reduction could work in baked goods by just adding a couple of ingredients.
"I would love to do that, but that's not how it works," she said, recounting the experience. "I'm not trying to be evasive, but it really is so dependent on the type of product and the specifics about that formulation. Or even the difference between a muffin and a cake. The amount of sugar in those two products [is] very different."
DesRochers went on to say the finished appearance also is different: A muffin should peak at the top, while a cake should stay relatively flat and fluffy.
When ingredients companies work on reformulating a product with less sugar, they need to be cognizant of the parameters the manufacturers have set for it. The mandated nutrition and ingredient information, label claims and ingredient restrictions may all dictate what can be done.
When customers come to Cargill asking to reduce sugar, Schmelzer said he starts out by asking them how much they want to remove. In general, as they replace more of the sweetness in a product, there's more reformulation work that needs to be done. He said they frequently ask for large reductions, which he referred to as "stretch goals" for manufacturers.
"I think there's been a lot of work looking at, 'Is there a silver bullet sweetener out there?' And I haven't seen anything that behaves that particular way."
Principal food scientist, Cargill
Sometimes a manufacturer that wants a dramatic reduction in sugar may not really know how much reformulation and work is needed to make that happen, he said.
"That's where we need to come back and start asking questions about how much flexibility do we have in formulation," Schmelzer said. "It may not be entirely about the sweetener but are there other levers we can pull — so changing acids, changing concentration of the acids, those sorts of things — to enable success in the product development cycle and create a little bit more flexibility."
He often recommends customers who are looking to make dramatic drops in sugar content create a "sister version" that is a separate SKU. With an independent and different product, Schmelzer said there's a lot more flexibility to play with the formulation and creatively develop something that meets the sugar reduction goals without necessarily having to look and taste identical.
Expectations for existing products also get in the way of how these reformulations go forward. DouxMatok's Baniel said the products the company has tested — including two that will eventually be sold in the U.S. market — have performed well in consumer tests.
"I'm less worried about the consumer," Baniel said. "What I'm worried about [are] those meetings where four savvy, experienced specialists in a company sit around, receive samples from DouxMatok, and because they've been working on their maginficent product for years, making it, improving it, they know it by heart. Then comes this newly formulated ... attempt. They measure it not against consumer preference, but against their own detailed habits.
"... They assume that what exists needs to be also what we make exist. And every odd change worries them. I understand because these are multi-billion dollar products and brands."
Baniel said DouxMatok has recently taken a different approach for a couple of its customers. The company asks the client what parameters they have for the product's sensory and nutritional perception. Then, it's formulated from scratch, instead of reinventing from something that already exists. He said they've had "enormous success" with this approach with bakeries in Israel.
But aside from making a product that fits corporate expectations of appearance, taste and label claims, the ingredients added to make up for less sugar also need close attention. Many consumers today are looking for more clean label products. While the term doesn't have an agreed-upon definition, most people conclude a cleaner label product has fewer ingredients and the ingredient names sound like items consumers recognize as food.
"If we're increasing the total number of ingredients, for example, if we're going with a jam and there is maybe a handful of ingredients in that jam — the berries, the pectin, sugar and so on," PreScouter's Armanious said. "If we're looking for a reduced sugar or sugar substitute variant of that, we might double or triple the number of ingredients."
DouxMatok is already reformulating its sugar solution to clean its label, Baniel said. This only impacts the ingredient list, not product performance or price.
While some experts said keeping clean labels were a concern in reformulations, Woo said it is not an issue. Most of the ingredients used today as sugar replacements — including erythritol, steviol glycosides and monk fruit — are all natural extracts, so they have relatively clean labels.
When a product is reformulated today, there are many expectations that it needs to meet. Consumers still expect a less-sugar cookie to have the same golden brown hue, crumbly texture and sweet taste as one made using a more conventional recipe. And with some brands trying to do stealth reformulations that make existing products healthier — or at least with a cleaner label — there is little room for things to go wrong.
In the future, however, experts said consumer expectations may shift. As more products with less sugar hit shelves, consumers may taste more items that have a good taste, texture and feel, but aren't quite like the ones with a full load of sugar.
Woo said the soda brand Zevia, which is completely sweetened with stevia, has already shown this shift.
"So what they're saying is, 'I wanna reset your expectations,' " Woo said. "It's not going to taste like sugar, but it's gonna taste like Zevia. ...For most of the full-sugar cola people, they would say it tastes no good, but it's the number one quote-unquote natural cola in Whole Foods for many years."
Consumers also are getting used to less sweet products as manufacturers are dialing back the sweetness in some of their products, Cargill's Schmelzer said.
"Trying to keep those ingredients as familiar names that aren't intimidating and are essentially clean label as well would be another major challenge here."
Technical director, PreScouter
Consumers had certain taste and texture expectations about yogurt a decade ago, he said. As base ingredients, sweetness levels, textures and styles have evolved, there are now a plethora of taste experiences in the yogurt segment. Some are much less sweet than they once were.
The seltzer segment also has several completely unsweetened drinks. That might have been unheard of in decades past, but some brands have seen success because of their lack of added sweetening.
"In the innovation space, we're seeing a lot of people play around with varying levels of sweetness," Schmelzer said.
Tate & Lyle's DesRochers said some of these products may be specifically marketed to consumers for their use of other sweeteners. As consumers are more educated about health benefits of different ingredients, they may choose these products based on what they are made from.
DesRochers said that's already happening in some categories, and products are getting a good following based on the healthy function they bring.
"They're certainly not ever gonna fool you," she said. "You have a keto baked good, you're not going to eat and go, 'Oh, my gosh. I never would have known that this wasn't a regular chocolate chip cookie."