Monk fruit, figs and raisins – Tate & Lyle turns away from sugar to healthier alternatives

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The company that built an empire on shipping sugar cane to its UK refineries, invented the sugar cube and kept Britain sweet for 160 years is now pioneering new food ingredients to fight the onslaught of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, which are both high risk factors for Covid-19. The business traces its roots to Liverpool grocer Henry Tate setting up a refinery in 1859 but now produces no sugar at all. It has sold the enterprise to an American consortium (which trades under the name Tate & Lyle Sugars).

Its factories have been turned into laboratories, working on natural and synthesised formulas to displace added sugar from cakes, biscuits, drinks, sauces, and dairy products. It comes as the Government and health chiefs grapple with the UK’s obesity epidemic, which has seen 67 percent of men and 60 percent of women classified as overweight or obese, and NHS hospitals dealing with more than a million admissions a year where obesity is a factor.

Figures from the NHS last week also showed alarming rises in obesity rates in school pupils. Obesity among four and five-year-olds rose from 9.9 percent in 2019/20 to 14.4 percent in 2020/21. Levels in Year 6 (aged 10 and 11) rose from 21 to 25.5 percent. Proposals in the UK’s National Food Strategy report featured the world’s first tax on sugar, with a proposed surcharge of £3 per kilo.

The reformulated Tate & Lyle has developed an armoury of natural and synthetic products now being introduced into regular foods. “Reducing sugar content is not as straightforward as it may sound,” explained Dr Kavita Karnik, a nutritional scientist at the firm. “Sugar has an influence on mouthfeel, the freezing point of ice cream, caramelisation, shelf-life and texture.”

She added: “If you’re cutting it in a recipe, these functions need to be matched by other ingredients.”

Monk fruit, around 200 times sweeter than table sugar; allulose, found in figs and raisins; and extracts from stevia plants – native to South America – are now providing the sweet taste. And business is booming, with Tate & Lyle making £2.9billion in revenue and a pre-tax profit of £331million in 2020.

Amy Jackson, bakery technologist at the firm, said: “The reformulated product must have the same quality and taste as the full-sugar version, as customers still have to buy it. We work with a lot of the major food brands and they are looking for a gradual reduction in sugar content – normally by 10 percent a time, up to around 30 percent. A lot of the products I work on – cakes, biscuits, and pastries – are treats. We are just making that treat a bit healthier and that is a positive contribution to the nation’s diet.”

CEO Nick Hampton said: “The question we set ourselves was, how can we help turn the needle back from the relentless charge towards Type 2 diabetes and obesity? Consumers buy on taste first, value second, and if it is healthy then that’s a bonus. The challenge is to get all those factors working together.”

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