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Two plant-based or vegan burgers in buns with lettuce, sliced tomato and ketchup with sticks through them

Sugar’s role in vegan-friendly and plant-based foods 

30/05/2024 By Kay Sandhu in Applications

There is growing pressure for food producers to deliver animal-free, diary-free food products that not only satisfy plant-based and vegan consumer appetites but also fulfil expectations in terms of flavour, appearance, texture and mouthfeel. Formulating plant-based or vegan-friendly products can present a challenge for food producers. But unless food producers are reformulating products specifically to contain less sugar, sugar has many functional properties that make it useful in enhancing the flavour, appearance, texture and mouthfeel that may be threatened by the removal of dairy, eggs or meat-based ingredients.  

In this article we highlight how acceptable sugar is to consumers of plant-based and/or vegan diets, the difference between plant-based and vegan diets, and the functional role sugar can play in enhancing texture, mouthfeel and flavour in plant-based and vegan-friendly foods.    

Is sugar vegan?

In the UK, sugar products are generally vegan as they will not have had contact with animals, dairy products or eggs. However, icing sugar can contain egg white powder, so it’s advisable to check the ingredients list. Most types of sugar, including the sugarcane and sugar beet plant-based clean label pure sugar ingredients that Ragus manufactures, can be safely used by food producers in formulating vegan-friendly and plant-based foods. 

Sugar is also considered an acceptable ingredient by consumers on plant-based diets. Consumers who follow a vegan, plant-based or a wholefoods diet may choose to limit the amount of added sugar they consume, and the focus may be more on the quality of a product’s ingredients and perceptions around how natural the added sugars are. 

Plant-based vs. vegan: what’s the difference?

A consumer who follows a plant-based diet will mainly eat plant-based foods with minimal-to-no animal-based foods. This diet may also limit or exclude processed foods in favour of wholefoods and clean label products.

A man and a woman in a food store or supermarket inspecting the label on a glass jar

Consumers who follow a plant-based or vegan diet may prefer to purchase clean label products that contain less refined sugars, such as demerara sugar.

By contrast, the term ‘vegan’ is more expansive and typically refers to a consumer’s lifestyle as well as their dietary choices. Environmental ethics and/or animal welfare concerns are often a factor in a consumer’s decision to follow a vegan diet, and this may not be the case for a consumer who chooses to follow a plant-based diet primarily for health reasons, for example.

In the table below, we highlight the key differences: 

A table showing how a plant-based diet and vegan diet and lifestyle differ.

Sugar can enhance flavour, texture and mouthfeel in vegan-friendly and plant-based foods.

The functional benefits of sugar in vegan-friendly and plant-based foods

Sugar’s main function is generally perceived to be to sweeten and balance, or act as a counterweight to, contrasting flavours in a food product. For example, hot sauces or chilli sauces will typically have sour, fruity, spicy or herbal notes, and a little sugar can make these flavours more palatable to the consumer without the product becoming too sweet.  

Sugar has many other functions in food technology, however, that are also relevant for vegan-friendly, plant-based applications. Sugar is used as a preservative in products like jams and jellies, as a humectant in cakes and biscuits, as a volume enhancer or bulking agent in marmalade, or as a colouring agent in sauces. For example, dark cane muscovado sugar can bring colour to a toffee sauce or otherwise-savoury marinade. Sugar’s role as a humectant also means that it extends the shelf life of a product, a valuable quality for food producers, whether a product is vegan-friendly or not.

A selection of biscuits, including custard creams and Bourbons (left). Marmalade spread on a slice of white bread (right).

Sugar is used to sweeten products like biscuits (left), but it can also be used as a bulking agent for, or to add volume to, marmalade (right).

Though some food producers may turn to artificial sweeteners over sugar, products such as demerara sugar, an unrefined sugar, will likely appeal more to the growing number of vegan and plant-based food consumers who want to buy clean label products with more natural ingredients.

Sugar, texture and mouthfeel in vegan-friendly, plant-based foods

Sugar can enhance both texture and mouthfeel. Texture and mouthfeel in food are not the same thing. Texture refers to the appearance and nature of a food product. For example, it may be soft, grainy, crunchy or crumbly. By contrast, mouthfeel is about the sensation a food gives to the mouth. In this, we could say that mouthfeel is more about the sensory experience of a food in the mouth, while texture is more concerned with a food’s physical properties or tactile quality. To give an example, if sugar is substituted for an artificial sweetener, the mouthfeel would likely change but the texture may not.  

It is easy to underestimate the importance of texture to food, yet texture and appearance comes before taste and flavour, so an appealing texture is important for food producers to achieve. Some countries consider certain textures more palatable than others. Jellies are arguably more familiar to Asian consumers than UK consumers. In the UK, the texture of a meat sausage often needs to be replicated in a plant-based or vegan-friendly sausage.

Texture is achieved through the interaction of a food product’s components. The juicy, chewy texture of a sausage is the result of its protein structures binding water and trapping fat. Similarly, the protein composition of eggs provides volume and structure to food products, particularly baked goods. Without the interaction of these components, the texture we may expect will not be achieved. 

Sugar is often used as a humectant, and a product’s ability to retain moisture affects how its texture changes over time. Sugar can be used to retain the moisture of plant-based meat-alternatives, preventing the product from drying out and so replicating the juicy texture of meat. 

The inside of a slice of steak or plant-based food substitute on a fork

Texture is achieved through the interaction of a product’s components. Ingredients like sugar have functional properties that enhance plant-based foods. For example, sugar helps retain water, adding moisture to the product that mimics the mouthfeel of a juicy burger.

Food producers rely on sugar to build a more durable product. This is vital for plant-based products and particularly a product like plant-based burgers as they must be robust enough to hold their shape during cooking. Sugar can be used as a bulking agent to bind together the plant-based ingredients so the product will not change its shape and appearance as a meat or dairy-based substitute, and consumers may be more inclined to consume, and consume again, such products as a result. The ‘bulk’ of a food product also affects texture and mouthfeel, especially in products like vegan ice cream and preserves. 

Sugar and flavour in vegan-friendly, plant-based foods

According to research from Innova Market Insights, 44% of consumers globally would like more flavour in plant-based foods. Invert sugar syrup is known as a flavour attractant, helping to bring out core flavours in products like ice cream, sorbet and baked goods, all of which can be formulated to be vegan-friendly.

Three tacos on a dark board, each containing peppers, lettuce, sauce and a meat or vegan filling

The appearance and flavour of plant-based food substitutes can be similar to products that contain animal-based ingredients, but the texture may vary.

The Maillard reaction is a chemical one between sugars and amino acids, and this reaction gives foods a more desirable flavour, and colour. As such, sugar can be useful in vegan-friendly products such as dairy-free and egg-free cakes as it can compensate for the flavour that is lost from leaving out or replacing these ingredients.

Sugar’s enduring functional value

Food manufacturers will want to deliver plant-based and vegan diet-friendly foods that satisfy consumer expectations with regards taste, flavour, texture and mouthfeel. Rising demand for plant-based and vegan-friendly products, could make sugar an even more valuable ingredient as it can perform some of the functions provided by animal-based ingredients and less refined, plant-based clean label sugar ingredients will appeal more to the type of consumers who follow vegan and/or plant-based diets.  

Ragus manufactures a range of speciality crystalline sugars and syrups for use in industrial food applications, including for plant-based and vegan products. To learn more, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and updates, continue browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn.

Kay Sandhu

Kay ensures that our customers’ orders are delivered, on time and in full.

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