Norwegian dairy company TINE sells a range of dairy products, such as cheeses, yoghurts and desserts, as well as cereal bears, fruit juices, iced teas and coffees under different brand names.
Over the past 10 years it has been reducing the sugar content of certain products - flavoured yoghurt, iced coffee and tea, flavoured fermented products and milks.
The strategy has been one of small, slow steps but with a big results. The added sugar content of its Sprett yoghurt, marketed towards children, has been slashed by 60% since 2001.
Head of nutrition at the company at Kirsti Wettre Brønner told FoodNavigator: “We could never have done this in one big leap. We believe that this gradual reduction has been the key to success, and crucial for consumers to slowly adopt to a less sweet taste. We are proud to say that we are partly responsible for the overall change in all the consumers' preference for a less sweet yoghurt.”
Although the company did receive some negative feedback from young consumers who complained of a lack of taste in the reduced-sugar iced tea, for the most part its incremental reformulation went unnoticed.
Under EU regulation 1924/2006, companies may only make a reduced sugar claim when the total sugar content of the product has been cut by at least 30% compared to other similar products.
In most of its products it did not replace the sugar with any alternative sweeteners, although it did launch some launch some zero-calorie products that used high intensity artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, acesulfam K and saccharin for its iced tea, and aspartame, acesulfam K and stevia for its flavoured yoghurt with a granola topping.
A race to the top for healthier food
The focus on sugar in recent years has spurred a sort of 'race to the top' among industry to make products healthier, according to the nutrition chief, and this is more fruitful than going down the road of mandatory reformulation.
“Other companies are aiming to reduce the amount of added sugar as well. One could say there is a tendency towards a ‘competition’ to become best in class on social responsibility and in reformulating the products in a healthier direction," she said.
“TINE believes in sound competition. Market leaders must take the lead also when it comes to sugar reduction and evolving the portfolio in a more healthy direction [and] … customers should be able to make their own choice, based on honest product information. We believe that this is a more fruitful way to go than mandatory reduction.”
In Norway industry has been engaging with the Ministry of Health on the issue, she said, with the idea being cooperation over regulation. The country's health minister, Bent Høie, was present at TINE's celebration of its million-kilo sugar cut two weeks ago. He told attendees: “It is especially important to look at measures to reduce sugar intake in the diet of vulnerable groups, especially children and adolescents, and in everyday products we all eat every day.”
However, even small sugar reductions come with technical challenges, said Wettre Brønner. Sugar does not just provide sweetness; it also contributes to texture and mouthfeel and, in fruit drinks and fruit yoghurts, can enhance the fruit flavour.
With its fermented milk products, the R&D team found it useful to modulate the sourness as well as the sweetness in order to balance the flavours, but for bigger sugar reductions there may be several parameters to change at the same time.
“In the case of fermented milk product we may have to change the culture, the white base formulation or the recipe for the fruit preparation. In the case where a white base is used with several fruit preparations it is necessary to ensure that the sugar reduction results in a suitable taste profile for all variants. This may be challenging.”
Changing processing parameters does not usually increase the cost but changes to ingredients and product composition may result in higher costs, she said, especially given that sugar is a relatively cheap ingredient.
TINE's parent company, TINE SA, is a cooperative owned by dairy farmers who supply milk to the firm. It is Norway’s largest dairy coop, working with around 15,000 farmers.