But a Malaysian condensed milk manufacturer, in production for less than a year, is confident that this can be achieved with what it claims is the first product of its kind.
PotonGuler came about by chance. While studying cooking at Le Cordon Bleu, Amirah Jasmine Noman was baking pastries at her home in Shah Alam. The recipe required condensed milk and sugar, neither of which she had to hand. Her family ran a diabetic drinks business and it had replaced sugar with stevia a decade ago.
“She took whole milk powder and stevia to make the first batch. So it was invented by accident by my sister,” said Anas Lutfi Noman, who handles marketing at PotonGuler.
Though stevia can be many times sweeter than sugar, it has a distinctive, licorice-like aftertaste. It has commonly been used as a natural sweetener for drinks like a sugar-free Coca-Cola, but the strong aftertaste has sometimes made it difficult to use in dairy products.
“We have been using stevia for more than 10 years so we know its secrets, and in particular how it should be blended with other sweeteners like IMO oligosaccharides and oligofructose,” said Anas.
“These act as a masking agent for the stevia, so a product will taste as sweet as it would with sugar, but with a lower glycemic index and fewer calories.”
He claims the patented blend PotonGuler uses for its Le Ting full-cream sweetened condensed milk can also be used as a sugar replacement for just about any product sold on the market.
As in other Asian countries, sweetened condensed milk is a vastly popular ingredient in Malaysia. According to some estimates, the country’s condensed, powdered and evaporated milk market stands at around MYR5bn (US$1.2bn), though it has been falling gradually in recent years due to growing interest in different diets.
The ingredient is perhaps best known locally as a central ingredient in teh tarik, a milky tea similar to Indian chai and Malaysia’s national drink.
Nutritionists often complain that sweet-toothed and rice-loving Malaysians are so in love with their traditional foods and beverages that many refuse to lower their carbohydrate intake, even to avoid diabetes.
As a result, Malaysia has the highest incidence of the disease in Asia and one of the highest in the world, according to the health ministry. Last year, 3.6m Malaysians had been diagnosed with diabetes; by 2025, that number is set to have doubled.
Though many Malaysian consumers believe that sweetened condensed milk contains an acceptable level of sugar, most brands contain more than 70% sugar and only 30% milk or creamers. PotonGuler uses 70% full-cream milk from New Zealand.
Anas hopes PotonGuler, whose name comes from poton gula, the Malay for “cut out the sugar”, will slot seamlessly into Malaysian culinary traditions by being stocked at mamak, or vast outdoor eating halls selling cheap food and lakes of teh tarik.
“There is little awareness of the existence of food products that do not contain sugar that are also affordable to the masses. We want to change that,” he said.
“We want it to be mainstream for people to go to the mamak and order teh tarik poton guler to have less sugar.”
The company identifies in its mission as a hybrid company that sells health products that double as consumer goods, to show that healthy foods that are lower in sugar and easily accessible.
The only way to combat lifestyle diseases exacerbated by excess sugar consumption is to give consumers more of what they want, as a healthy alternative that tastes the same, rather than persuading them to change what they eat, according to Anas.
“If the same foods are available lower in sugar, they taste the same and are easily accessible, that is the key solution in combating diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
“Diabetics have no choice from the market when they like sweet things, so PotonGuler is something they can enjoy without compromising their health, and it’s still affordable,” he added. A 350g pouch retails for MYR7 (US$1.70), which is not much more than competitors that contain sugar.
Having launched their central product last February, Anas, along with Amirah, her sister Atirah and their respective husbands, are now working on new products, including a chocolate version of Le Ting condensed milk, a chocolate spread “like Nutella” and a line of ready-to-drink beverages.
The siblings, who are expecting their halal certification to be approved in February, are also hoping to drum up OEM business for suppliers that use condensed milk in their finished products.
In the last year they have managed to secure distributors in Thailand and Singapore, and have their eyes on further expansion, to bigger markets like Indonesia, China and India, where condensed milk is extremely popular and diabetes is on the rise.
“Our perfect markets are ones where people have a sweet tooth and there is a lot of diabetics,” said Anas. “One of our main goals is to expand everywhere and become a global name.”
At home, the company will spend much of this year drumming up awareness of the PotonGuler brand to people who want or need to cut down their sugar intake.
The family spent more than MYR250,000 (US$60,600) on a small factory and product development to enter the market. It now has a capacity of over 20,000 packs a month and is ramping up production to meet anticipated demand from overseas markets.
“A lot of people have been asking for it, so we know there is demand, but we want to stabilize our supply so we can cater for the demand when it really starts to come,” Anas added.