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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 11, 2018, with the headline 'Finding the sweet spot'.

F&B outlets struggle to use healthier sugar substitutes, citing taste and texture differences

From pad thai to pork ribs, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) is hoping that chefs will go easy on sugar to help Singaporeans stave off diabetes. But how far will this go in an industry where flavour is king and sugar often plays a major role?

Although a wide variety of sweeteners exist in the market, many are imperfect substitutes for sugar, despite decades of research. Stevia, for instance, is several hundred times sweeter than cane sugar, and only a tiny pinch is needed to flavour drinks. But people have complained that the natural sweetener has a bitter metallic aftertaste.

And no substitute can mimic the other properties of sugar, which adds bulk and improves the texture of foods, from yogurts to sauces to desserts. When heated, sugar also browns to create additional flavour.

But the stakes are high, with diabetes a serious health concern here, and the average Singaporean taking 12 teaspoons of sugar a day, above the recommended daily intake of nine to 11 teaspoons.

One way of curbing sugar intake is by replacing cane sugar with natural alternatives.

HPB, as part of a plan announced last week to cut Singaporeans' sugar intake by nearly a quarter by 2020, hopes to resolve the issue by encouraging manufacturers to partially replace the sugar in their foods with allulose and isomaltulose. Both are white, grainy, come from natural sources and resemble regular table sugar.

 

They are, however, less sweet and have a lower glycaemic index (GI). This index is a measure of how quickly food affects a person's blood sugar level. In low-GI foods, energy is released more slowly, preventing blood sugar spikes.


Professor Jeyakumar Henry, who is studying isomaltulose, said it is very similar to sucrose, or regular table sugar. Both are composed of two simple sugars known as glucose and fructose.

However, the components are bonded in different ways.

"In isomaltulose, it takes much longer to break this bond," said Prof Henry, who heads the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre. "This gives you a slow release of energy."

His research has also found that people who consume isomaltulose with each meal have a lower GI response for the whole meal, compared with those who take sugar.

Regularly consuming high-GI foods can cause spikes in blood sugar, which raise a person's chances of developing diabetes.

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