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How diet trends influence functional sugar ingredient demand

22/02/2024 By Ben Eastick in Applications

Thousands of diets exist, and functional sugar ingredients play a key role in many of them. This article, however, is not a comment on dieting or whether one diet has merit over another. Rather, we explore the role of sugar in diets, how diet trends influence consumer demands for specific plant-based, clean label pure sugar ingredients like those that Ragus manufactures, and how sugar products are adapted to fit different dietary preferences.

Some diets focus on weight loss by restricting calorie consumption, while others support weight gain or build muscle mass. There are diets for health conditions and diets to help lower cholesterol, fight inflammation or boost energy. There are avoidance diets that test for food allergies and intolerances. There is also an increasing number of people who embrace ‘ethical eating’ due to environmental ethics and a growing awareness of the ecological and social impact of consuming foods and beverages.

So, where does sugar fit into all this?

What sugars can be found in food?

Sugar is the general name for a type of carbohydrate that the body converts into glucose for use as energy. The chemical name for sugar is sucrose. Sucrose, which comes from sugarcane and sugar beet, is often refined and added to food and drinks. However, it can be found naturally in fruits and vegetables, as can other sugars.

In the UK, some sugars are categorised as ‘free sugars’ (or ‘added sugars’ in some other countries). Free sugars are added to foods and drinks, often by the producer. Examples include energy drinks, pre-made cakes and biscuits, and flavoured yoghurt.

Legs of woman sitting on chair wearing sports leggings and holding an energy drink bottle, in a gym or fitness space

Energy drinks often contain large amounts of free, or added sugars, alongside other ingredients designed to optimise short-term physical performance.

The sugar found in honey, syrups and unsweetened drinks like juices and smoothies is also categorised as free sugar as the sugar is not found within the cell structure but is ‘free’ from it. Free sugars are not a necessary component in daily human diets, but if consumed in moderation can form part of a healthy diet.

How much sugar should be consumed?

The ‘natural sugars’ present in milk and fruit and vegetables do not fall into the category of free sugars. In these products, the sugar sits inside the cell structure. Consumers are generally not advised to manage their consumption of products that contain only natural sugars. This is because natural sugar in reasonable quantities is not considered harmful to health and these products can provide additional nutrients, such as fibre.

Consumers are advised to manage their consumption of foods and drinks that contain free or added sugars. At present, the UK government recommends limiting free sugars so they make up no more than 5% of daily calories (equivalent to 30g or around seven sugar cubes). This can be done by reading product labels, knowing how to assess free sugars information, and through strategies like, for example, choosing whole foods and full-fat options over low-fat or more processed options.

Diets and dietary advice impacts on industrial food and beverage recipes

Government dietary recommendations can shape diet trends. More consumers are choosing to consume fewer products high in free sugars or that contain artificial sweeteners in a bid to follow a healthier diet. As a result, food and drinks manufacturers generally aim to reduce free sugar content and develop natural alternatives to artificial sweeteners. This means reformulating and updating recipes

In turn, functional sugar ingredient manufacturers like Ragus focus efforts on ensuring our plant-based clean label sugar products continue to perform all the production functions that sugar does in food, beverages and medicines.

Sugar does so much more than sweeten. It adds colour, flavours other than sweetness, texture, bulk and mouthfeel, and is a humectant, acting as a preservative and, through its chemistry, helping make products like ice cream scoopable and fondants smooth.

Woman smiling and putting a spoonful of ice cream or dessert into her mouth.

Sugar is a functional ingredient with many properties that influence the taste, texture, colour, preservation and mouthfeel of food and beverages.

Consumers will always want what they eat and drink to taste appealing, and more natural, quality-manufactured sugar products play a vital role in achieving this. At this stage it’s worth reiterating that sugar can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet. No sugar is not necessarily the answer, especially when the alternatives can prove detrimental to good health, and the quality of the sugar ingredient is important.

So, what role do sugar ingredients play in some of the more widely known diet trends, and how does this influence functional sugar ingredient demand generally?

4 diet trends and how they influence sugar ingredient demand

The ketogenic diet

Also known as the ‘keto diet’, this is a high fat ‘low carb’ diet that aims to move the body into a state where it burns fat for energy instead of glucose (ketosis). This diet can help people lose weight and manage some health conditions. But to achieve ketosis, sugar consumption is restricted. This can encourage people to turn to low carb sweeteners, some of them artificial, to satisfy their taste for sweetness. There is evidence to suggest that some additives may be harmful to health, and do not contain the additional nutrients that sugar products like cane molasses provide when used in food and drinks.

Selection of fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts on a worktop. Selection of fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts on a wooden table.

Left: A selection of keto high fat low carb diet ingredients, which don’t include sugars. Right: Paleo diet ingredients reflecting what our ancestors may have eaten as hunter-gatherers.

The paleo diet

This diet is modelled on the eating habits of hunter-gatherer humans who lived during the Paleolithic Age. This means a focus on nuts, seeds, fruit, fish, vegetables and lean meat. Where modern Western diets are associated with processed food and products high in added salt and refined free sugars, the Paleo diet largely avoids foods and drinks that contain refined or free sugars. But it also avoids artificial sweeteners in favour of natural sweeteners. This underlines the need for food and beverage manufacturers to be able to use natural, plant-based sugars in their recipes.

The DASH diet

The dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH) diet focuses on lowering and/or managing high blood pressure without medication. Wholegrains, fruits and vegetables, and fat-free and low-fat dairy products are the diet’s key components. Depending on calorie intake, no more than five servings per week of products that contain free sugars is allowed. However, fat-free and low-fat versions of a dairy product often contain more free sugars by way of sugar substitutes than full-fat versions.

Alt text (left image): Selection of fruits, vegetables, fish and healthy items on a worktop Alt text (right image): Blueberries, celery, avocado, asparagus, carrots and nuts laid out on a worktop.

Left: A selection of foods that fuel the balanced nutrition concept for a DASH clean eating flexitarian Mediterranean diet. Right: High alkaline foods that suit the vegan alkaline diet concept.

The alkaline diet

As with many diets, this restricts processed foods in favour of more wholesome alternatives. This diet follows the idea that eating certain foods alter the body’s pH levels. The body’s natural pH level leans towards alkaline, so the diet aims to ensure that the foods we eat do not turn the body’s pH level too acidic. Sugar and sweeteners are among the items that are classed as acidic, so should be avoided, while alkaline foods include seeds, fruits, vegetables, grains and some pulses. This diet restricts free sugars in favour of foods that contain naturally occurring sugar, like fruit.

What does this mean for food and beverage manufacturers?

These diet trends, and many others, echo the shift in consumer preference towards natural, plant-based clean label sugar as a quality ingredient in products. Sugar means more than sweetness. Pure sugars are multi-functional and have numerous applications in food and drinks. Consumers still want sweetness and still appreciate the taste and texture of a product even if they do not realise that sugar played a role in creating that taste or texture. In this, focusing on natural free sugars and clean labelling on products is important for manufacturers, as it is already important to consumers.

List of nutritional values written on a food label

Product labelling helps consumers choose and producers to clearly show what ingredients their products contain.

As the relationship between different diet trends and sugar products continue to evolve, it is most important to remain mindful of sugar consumption and for consumers to know what to look for on product labels so they can make the best decisions for their diet and health.

Ragus manufactures natural, plant-based pure sugars for industrial food and beverage applications, enhancing taste, flavour, texture and appearance. To learn more about our pure sugars, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn. 

Ben Eastick

A board member and co-leader of the business, Ben is responsible for our marketing strategy and its execution by the agency team he leads and is the guardian of our corporate brand vision. He also manages key customers and distributors.

In 2005, he took on the role of globally sourcing our ‘speciality sugars’. With his background in laboratory product testing and following three decades of supplier visits, his expertise means we get high quality, consistent and reliable raw materials from ethical sources.

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