Why do we focus on sugar? Why do we consider sugar a problem? After all, it is a main staple ingredient to the food industry, alongside flour, starch, rice, oils, coffee, cocoa, meat, milk, eggs etc.
Sugar is a carbohydrate thus a primary source of energy and essential to the function of the central nervous systems, reminds the Sugar Association in the US. Sugar is a naturally occurring ingredient, in fruits (fructose), milk (lactose), and vegetable (glucose, sucrose, starch), honey (fructose and glucose), and even cereals (maltose). However the problem comes mainly from added sugar, as an ingredient in processed food.
Economic industrialisation and urbanisation trends have brought a radical change in the way we eat. It has not only transformed the way farms operate, it has also brought a change in the type of food available. Food began to be transformed, through industrial processes, before reaching our plates. In addition, food producers have introduced taste enhancers such as salt, fat and sugar to make their products more attractive to consumers. Sugar may be used to sweeten food, but it is also used as a preservative, a bulking agent, a texture modifier, and a fermentation substrate, and a colouring and flavor agent. Sugar performs many important physical functions in the preparation of foods, as shown in the chart of sugar’s functional roles.
As an industrial food ingredient, sugar comes in various forms. Since the 1970’s we have seen the emergence of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or isoglucose, a sweetener made from corn starch, both in the US and Europe. It quickly became widely-adopted by the food industry as a less expensive and easier-to-process ingredient than granulated sugar, possibly accelerating the heavy use of sugar in processed foods.
This is where the sugar challenge starts. Sugar now contributes to unhealthy diets on a large scale. The food industry seems to have overused the sugar ingredient, in its various forms, driving international national and local authorities to regulate for its reduction. Yet the functional roles of sugar makes reformulation a challenge.
We would argue it is also a taste challenge. As consumers became used to, or addicted to, the sweetness of processed food, the industry has so far found only limited ideas to make their foods attractive beyond the use of added sugars. A study published in 2017 showed that added sugars in Europe contributed 7% to 11% of total energy intake in adults, and represented a higher 11% to 17% proportion of children’s energy intake. This points to sweet products and beverages as the major contributors to added sugar intakes .Data on the use of sugar in Europe shows that 18% of sugar is used in manufactured drinks. Sweet drinks are also the main source of added sugar in the US population, illustrating the craving by 'western' societies for sweet beverages.
Sugar is not alone as a ‘bad’ ingredient in food. Sodium, fat and sugar levels also contribute to unhealthy modern diets, and are all targeted by health regulators. However the sugar-industry lobby might have influenced and postponed the debate surrounding the impact of sugar on health. We are now seeing a catch-up effect on both regulation and consumer awareness. To date, salt reduction has probably seen the most significant changes and had the most impact on public health. Public Health organizations are now hoping for significant improvement in sugar levels in foods, but they are aware that the challenge of sugar reduction is a greater one.
Driven mainly by regulations and consumer demand for health and transparency, food manufacturers are now working on reformulation and better labelling. Re-inventing food recipes, whilst keeping customers happy and loyal, is a costly challenge for the industry. Candriam assesses the positioning of investee companies across several long term trends. We are seeing more responsible behaviours, including tackling nutrition issues as a main long-term performance driver for food manufacturers.