Sugar Talk Sugar Talk
Sugar’s functional properties: texture and mouthfeel in food and beverage products
Sugar is so much more than just a sweetener. As a functional ingredient for industrial applications, one of its most powerful roles is the texture it gives to food and beverages. Texture can define the eating or drinking experience, impacting not only mouthfeel, but the way products look and even taste.
What is texture in food and beverages?
Food texture is the properties of a food that you sense by touch: usually just in your mouth, but sometimes with your hands too. The science of food texture is called ‘food rheology’: the cognitive property assigned to foods based on how senses interact with the food by vision, touch, and oral processing.
There are endless words to describe food texture—but the most common ones are watery, firm, crunchy, creamy and chewy.
A good chef or food technologist knows that texture is just as important as flavour. Every type of cuisine features contrasting textures in its most-loved dishes. Interestingly, texture has been found to play a big part in recognising foods: when foods are pureed and strained, people can only identify 40% of them, according to one study.
Why is texture important?
We are all very sensitive to texture. Although we mostly sense it with touch, kinesthetics (movement and position) and sound are involved too. According to Amy Fleming in a 2013 Guardian article, we can detect ice crystals in ice cream measuring 40 microns, or 1/25th of a millimetre. For the creamiest mouthfeel, producers use liquid nitrogen. It freezes so fast the ice crystals don’t get a chance to grow, giving the smoothest most luxurious consistency.
A lot of food aversions are based on texture rather than taste. Sliminess is unpopular in Western cultures, with mushrooms featuring high on most-hated food lists. Unexpected textures cause particular disgust, like crunching on a bone in a piece of soft chicken or coming across a blob of soggy biscuit in the bottom of a cup of tea.
Research has proven that texture is crucial element in how consumers perceive the quality of foods and affects how much people eat of a certain food. One study found that ‘perceived texture is closely related to the structure and composition of the food, and both microscopic and macroscopic levels of structure can influence texture’. In other words, manufacturers need to get texture right on both the molecular level (the chemistry) and the bigger, more visible level, like the density a cake or the squeeziness of sauce.
More than mouthfeel: How sugar impacts the texture of food
Sugar has a complex chemistry that governs the different textures it gives to different foods.
For example, sugar is ‘hydrophilic’, meaning it absorbs water. In jams and marmalades, that means water is kept away from the pectin molecules, allowing them to gel and create the classic wobbly jelly texture. If the balance between water and sugar isn’t perfect, the gelling won’t happen.
Sugar particle size also manipulates texture and mouthfeel: fine particles—for example in dark cane or light cane muscovado sugar—give a smooth texture and mouthfeel. Because its fine grain texture dissolves easily, so you’ll find muscovado sugars in sauces, chutneys, pickles, salad dressings and ice creams.
Small, consistent sugar crystals are responsible for the smooth silkiness of chocolate, orchestrating the flow and formation of its structure. Sugar particle size also directs the texture and mouthfeel of icings, frostings and fondants, and the crispiness or chewiness of a biscuit owes a lot to the type of sugar within it: bigger sugar crystals—like the ones in demerara sugar, for example—produce a crispier biscuit.
Viscosity: what sugar does to the texture of drinks
The sugar reduction targets set by the government in 2018 mean the soft drinks industry has been grappling with producing beverages that not only taste the same as sugar-sweetened ones, but have the same kind of mouthfeel too.
The viscosity of a drink—its thickness and stickiness—is the foundation of an enjoyable drinking experience.
Viscosity is the most challenging aspect of soft drinks to reproduce without sugar, according to Nick Henson, an expert in food solutions in an article on Food Ingredients First. “It’s hard to simulate exactly the texture that sucrose provides sweetened beverages,” he said. “Some gums and fibres do give viscosity, but it’s not quite the same a sucrose. If you’re looking for a very high reduction on sweetness, texture is the most difficult challenge.”
Because sugar is a bulking agent, it has a big impact on the mouthfeel and lubrification of beverages. If soft drink manufacturers remove sugar without making up for the loss of body and bulk with fibres or gums, they risk reducing body, smoothness and mouthfeel.
Sugar plays a much greater role as a functional ingredient for industrial applications than just sweetening. It’s been enhancing the tastes, textures and appearances of our favourite foods and drinks for generations. Texture is just one aspect of its irreplaceability.
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.