Sweet dreams: the food brands ditching unnecessary sugars

Sweet dreams: the food brands ditching unnecessary sugars

by Ollie Lloyd 10 August 2018

Ollie Lloyd talks to Elizabeth Jones of Real Good Ketchup and Joseph Kelly of Cool Cold Brew to see how they are taking on the big brands but without the need for sugar.

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Ollie is the founder of Great British Chefs.

Ollie is the founder of Great British Chefs.

Times are changing. In politics, the economy and in food (one of the few areas in the UK in which change has been largely positive). There are more independent restaurants; a greater variety of cuisines; more concern for sustainability; greater interest in animal welfare and, as a result, ever better produce. Yet the most effective revolutions are invariably the quiet ones: the ones which begin not with bangs, but slowly, almost imperceptibly, behind closed doors.

Or should it be closed cupboard doors – for the revolution we’re alluding to here is that of the store cupboard. Its targets? Added salt and sugar. In January this year, we did a piece of research with a nationally representative sample (i.e. balance of gender, age, socio-demographics, etc.) of 3,000 people and found that 45% tried to avoid sugar where possible. We asked a number of other health-related questions and because the survey had been conducted during a month traditionally associated with healthy eating, we decided to include these in our summer survey. Once again, we surveyed a nationally representative sample of 3,000 people and asked the same question. This time we found that over 55% of the UK claimed to be trying to avoid sugar where possible. It seems that all the negative messages around sugar are making an impact. People seem to be saying that while they’re not averse to the odd slice of cake, the idea of consuming sugar unwittingly and unnecessarily via a store cupboard staple was anathema in light of our increased understanding of diet-related diseases.

Hear more about sugar reduction on FoodTalk

Hear more from the founders of Real Good Ketchup and Cool Cold Brew on the FoodTalk podcast.

Image by Beth Heddle

Take Heinz for example: the nation’s favourite, and no wonder. ‘The average tablespoon contains almost four grams of sugar,’ says Elizabeth Jones, mastermind behind the first ‘free-from’ ketchup brand in the UK. ‘It contains high-fructose corn syrup – a GM-modified ingredient which causes a spike in blood-sugar levels, and has been linked to diabetes, heart disease and immune system issues.’ Elizabeth worked in children’s food for years before founding her food company On the Menu, in response to the lack of choice of nutritious, free-from products in the UK. Real Good Ketchup is one branch of that, made with tomatoes, onion, garlic, cornflour for texture and xylitol (from sustainable birch forests) for sweetness. It’s free of sugar and all allergens, and it is also – most remarkably – delicious. ‘You don’t need sugar to get the flavour and sweetness out of Mediterranean tomatoes. It’s about how you treat your ingredients.’

For British consumers whose entire conception of ketchup has been shaped by a single brand, finding one that delivers without the associated sugar seemed an impossible feat. Our culinary memory says ketchup = Heinz. ‘From the way it blobs on the end of the chip to the mouthfeel and smell,’ says Elizabeth, ‘we expect ketchup to perform in ways we are familiar with. The challenge for us was recreating that whole ketchup experience without compromising on our ambition to be sugar- and allergen-free.’

Remove the sugar and you have a sauce which, while sumptuous, has none of the viscosity of ketchup. ‘Sugar acts as a thickener as well as a sweetener – so we use cornflour to give it some body and texture.’ It’s a telling example of the many and various ways in which sugar is used – and, arguably, abused – in the food industry. It took a year and a half for Elizabeth to perfect the recipe, but the result is a ketchup that would stand up against any of the leading brands – and its profile is growing rapidly. ‘We still have to have promotions and offers to get people to try it, and we’ve worked hard at social media and travelling the country getting feedback,’ she says. But the reality is parents and punters alike are on the hunt for day-to-day foodstuffs which are sugar-free without being taste-free.

Sugar is not just a childhood issue. It is not just an obesity issue. Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart and liver disease and even some cancers have all been linked to excessive sugar consumption at some point. This does not mean there shall be no more cakes and ale, but it does suggest avoiding sugar when the sugar is adding no real value is a sensible option for everyone, regardless of weight or age. There is opportunity for brands in this; in reviewing store cupboard ‘staples’, as Elizabeth has done, but also in revising those little luxuries we have on a regular basis like iced mochas and lattes – and it is this that Joseph Devereux Kelly has done with his company, Cool Cold Brew.

Pick up an iced coffee from the likes of Starbucks and you’ve got something with 20g of sugar in it. A blended coffee Frappuccino has 50g. At the top end of the spectrum, a large chai latte from Costa contains a whopping twenty teaspoons of sugar. For people who drink high street coffee drinks regularly, this can add up very quickly, and this was what prompted Joseph to create a sugar-free alternative.

‘Like Elizabeth with her ketchup, we’ve tried to create products with few calories, less sugar and cleaner ingredients than you’d find in regular iced coffee,’ says Joseph. ‘Coffee brewed hot is more acidic, as certain acids from the beans get released upon contact with hot water, giving that bitterness we are used to.’ This is even more pronounced once coffee has been cooled down in the chilled aisle of a supermarket or with ice in a café. With cold brew coffee however, the water isn’t poured over but infused. ‘Ground coffee is left in cold, freshly filtered water for over sixteen hours before being extracted – so the coffee is less acidic and naturally sweeter than its hot brewed counterparts.’ They don’t need sugar or flavourings to create a good flavour profile – even the mocha demands no more than cocoa and date syrup – and the chilled, clean, caffeine-spiked beverage is a welcome relief on these sleepy summer days.

Breaking into an established market which has been dominated by big brands for decades is not easy – but with consumer interest in food great and growing it’s no longer impossible. Many customers are no longer content to glance at the label while tearing off the wrapper: they want to go beyond it, to understand the ingredients, the processes behind the product and the values of the brand by whom it was made. There is an opportunity here, for small brands with an authentic story to rise up and compete with the big boys; and for retailers to make a statement by supporting them. It’s in all of our interests to eat less refined sugar, and it’s invariably the small-scale, ethically-minded companies that are trying to help us. Not all deal’s need sweetening to make sense.

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