(Bloomberg) -- Nestle SA says it found a way to reduce the amount of sugar in chocolate by as much as 40 percent, a discovery that may give the KitKat maker an edge as food producers face increasing pressure from governments, health advocates and shoppers to make products healthier.
The world’s largest food company has developed a process to alter the structure of sugar that makes it taste sweeter in smaller amounts, according to Chief Technology Officer Stefan Catsicas, who declined to specify what that involves. Nestle will start selling confectionery products made that way in 2018 and will gradually reduce their sugar content, he said in an interview.
Big food companies that also include Mondelez International Inc. and PepsiCo Inc. are scrambling to create healthier products to reduce their reliance on treats laden with sugar and salt. It comes as the U.K., Mexico and some U.S. cities implement sugar taxes to help fight childhood obesity and diabetes, which affects four times as many people now than in 1980. The World Health Organization has said increasing the price of sugary drinks by 20 percent would reduce consumption by a fifth.
“We want people to get used to a different taste, a taste that would be more natural,” Catsicas said. “We really want to be the drivers of the solution.”
Nestle is seeking to patent the sugar-reduction process, which Catsicas wouldn’t describe in detail, but likened to making sugar crystals that are “hollow.” The crystals dissolve more quickly, stimulating the taste buds faster, he said. Unprocessed food has complex structures, which Nestle is trying to mimic by distributing the sugar in a less uniform way.
“If you look with an electron microscope into an apple, that’s exactly what you see,” said Nestle’s top researcher, days before the U.K. government shares details on its proposed sugar tax. “Real food in nature is not something smooth and homogeneous. It’s full of cavities, crests and densities. So by reproducing this variability, we are capable to restore the same sensation.”
To avoid any sudden change in the taste of its chocolate, the maker of the Butterfinger and Cailler brands plans to use the new technology to reduce sugar content gradually, according to Catsicas, a former biology professor and GlaxoSmithKline Plc executive. He compared the strategy to his own experience using less sugar in his coffee, making a small reduction each week. After three months, he took his coffee unsweetened.
Nestle isn’t alone in research on altering the consistency of sugar. Leatherhead Food Research, a U.K. institute whose 100 scientists consult for food companies, has been studying how to shrink the size of crystals or coat sugar around low-calorie ingredients. The approach has also been tried on salt.
“If it works for salt, I assume it could work for sugar,” said Joanne Slavin, a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. “Price is another complicating factor: if this new sugar is much more expensive than sugar, it will increase cost.” An additional challenge is that less sugar can change the feel of a product in the mouth.
Nestle declined to say whether it will use the technology in other product categories, as it’s waiting for the patent to be published, a spokesman said. The potential 40 percent reduction isn’t a formal target, and Nestle has yet to announce its 2017 goals for cutting sugar use.
The company has used a similar approach in ice cream, where it makes Dreyer’s with a “slow-churned” method that reduces fat by half and calories by a third. It’s trying to apply the restructuring method to salt, Catsicas said, and may consider licensing the technology to other companies.
“I would have no problem with that,” he said. “If we can make a good business case, if we can get the returns that we deserve, then why not?”
--With assistance from Corinne Gretler To contact the reporter on this story: Thomas Mulier in Geneva at firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Matthew Boyle at email@example.com, Phil Serafino
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