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Sugar as a bulking agent: a guide for food manufacturers

04/07/2024 By Frank O’Kelly in Products

As a functional ingredient in food, sugar performs many functions. One of these functions is add volume, bulk or weight to food without affecting its taste or texture. Sugar is a widely used, plant-based, clean label versatile and natural bulking agent, and one that is hard to replace in foods like cakes and sauces.

Some bulking agents are additives that are usually added to food for commercial, not nutritional reasons. They can be used to replace sugar or fat, or anything else removed from a food product, and to improve appearance, texture or mouthfeel, or add volume of weight.

In this article, we explore the role of sugar as a food bulking ingredient versus other types of bulking agents, and why food manufacturers find it hard to substitute sugar for another ingredient.

Sugar vs. other bulking agents

There are many advantages to using sugar as a bulking agent. Sugar is a natural food bulking ingredient. In fact, a key advantage of sugar is that it is a natural volumiser and bulking agent. If sugar is removed from a formulation, whether to reduce sugar content or calories, another ingredient usually takes its place, and this may be an artificial substance or multiple artificial substances.

When sugar is removed but sweetness is required, an artificial high-intensity sweetener like aspartame or sucralose may be used. As high-intensity sweeteners do not provide bulk in the way that sugar does, bulking agents will be added in addition to artificial sweeteners. Manufacturers tend to use bulking agents like polydextrose, inulin, resistant starch, fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) or maltodextrin to provide the bulk sugar. In the chart below, we provide further details on each of these bulking agents and their properties.

A chart or table showing different bulking agents and their properties.

Sugar is a natural bulking agent, and there are many advantages to using it as a bulking agent. However, other bulking agents are used by food manufacturers, such as those listed in this chart.

There is nothing that can fully replicate the presence of sugar in food; the function it provides must be replaced with substances that are often chemical or synthetic. This means the final product will not appeal to health-conscious consumers. However, it is important for food manufacturers to balance this with consumer preferences for low-sugar or sugar-free products.

Sugar’s versatility makes it irreplaceable in many formulations, as it can also impart sweetness, improve mouthfeel, texture, colour and flavour.

Close up of a golden-coloured waffle, showing its texture

Sugar impacts the texture and mouthfeel of a food product, but it is also used to enhance flavour, appearance and colour.

Sugar-based bulking solutions

Sugar impacts texture and mouthfeel in food products. For example, many of the vegan meat alternatives available use sugar to recreate the juiciness and texture of meat that vegan consumers may still desire. As sugar reduces the water activity in food, bacteria and fungi present cannot use it, which prevents microorganisms from multiplying and spoiling the product. For this reason, foods that naturally contain higher amounts of sugar, or use it as a bulking agent, have a longer shelf life and may not require refrigeration.

Meat or vegetarian sausages in a skillet or frying pan with sprigs of rosemary and chopped onions

Food manufacturers may want to recreate the juiciness and texture of meat in vegan replacements to satisfy the expectations of non-meat-eating consumers.

As sugar can impact a product in many ways, products may need to be reformulated if food manufacturers want to use sugar as a bulking agent. For instance, because sugar adds viscosity (thickness and stickiness), it is useful in semi-liquid foods like chutneys and sauces. Its anticoagulant properties, required in products like custard and desserts like panna cotta and crème caramel, change proteins into a semi-solid state. While that’s an essential property of these foods, it’s worth remembering that adding sugar to food products can transform them in unexpected ways.

A moulded custard dessert on a white plate alongside raspberries and a spoon

Sugar is valued for its anticoagulant properties in desserts like panna cotta.

Sugar as a bulking agent: consumer and industry trends

Consumer trends

Consumers are becoming more savvy about sugar and sugar substitutes and the potential dangers associated with consuming foods that contain additives and artificial sweeteners and bulking agents. Sugar, a natural clean label and plant-based ingredient that is processed to varying degrees, is in many cases an ideal bulking agent.

Food manufacturers should align their product offerings with what consumers want. This can be reduced-sugar options made with alternative bulking agents or natural products made without chemicals and fillers, which is where pure sugar takes the prize.

Industry trends

With demand for lower sugar food products rising, food manufacturers are looking for ways to improve taste and texture in sugar-reduced products. For example, some juice manufacturers are using soluble fibres to provide bulk alongside monk fruit for sweetness. However, consumers are sensitive to any changes made to their favourite products. Replacing sugar is notoriously difficult, as the makers of Lucozade found out when they removed sugar from the recipe and sales plummeted as a result. When sugar is removed, building back bulk and ensuring maximum shelf life while giving consumers the eating experience they want is a challenge. If food manufacturers are unable to replicate sugar’s timeless appeal, consumers may go elsewhere.

Bulking agents and food regulations

Every country has different regulations and guidelines on how to display sugar content on product labels. Food manufacturers want to gain and maintain consumer trust, so food label compliance is key. Regulations on sugar usage and alternative bulking agents can change, so it is important to be aware of them.

A product’s nutritional label (left), two consumers reading a product label in a food store (right).

Food label regulations vary across countries. For food manufacturers, food label compliance is key.

Sugar, the bulking agent: our takeaways for food manufacturers

Bulking agents add volume or weight to a product without affecting its taste, function or texture. Sugar is a natural bulking agent that comes with many other natural, functional properties, making it hard to replace in food products.

While there is demand for low-sugar products among some consumers, replacing sugar often means using artificial sweeteners and artificial bulking agents that change a product’s taste and texture.

Food manufacturers must be guided by their consumer segments when reformulating recipes to lower or replace sugar. As sugar is a natural, plant-based, clean label bulking agent, it is often used to give texture or volume to plant-based or low-fat products and meat alternatives. Manufacturers must consider health-conscious consumer preferences and industry trends when they procure sugar in bulk, looking closely at quality control measures, certifications, and sustainability practices in a sugar supplier.

Ragus manufactures functional, clean label, plant-based pure sugar ingredients for industrial food manufacturers. To learn more, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and updates, continue browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn.

Frank O’Kelly

Frank is the primary contact for many of our largest customers.

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