As health campaigners continue to target sugary treats such as biscuits, how can bakers use different ingredients to fight back?

Biscuits are once again in the firing line as health chiefs renew their efforts to reduce the nation’s sugar, fat and calorie intake.

A recent report by Public Health England found that children ate, on average, up to 400 biscuits a year alongside many other sweet treats. As a result, it urged parents to curb their kids’ sugar intake by limiting them to two 100-calorie snacks per day.

That’s a tall order for biscuits – a single bourbon contains over 60 calories and a digestive more than 70 – and their binge-able nature means calories can quickly add up.

So, what can bakers do to increase the health credentials of biscuits and cookies? And how do they strike a balance between nutrition, calorie content and taste?

The category’s bigger players are focusing on portion control. Pladis, for example, rolled out McVitie’s Digestive Thins early in 2017 – a range it says is now worth £15m.

While portion control is a route advocated by Public Health England for reducing fat and sugar, Mike Adams, bakery science section manager at Campden BRI, warns consumers may be less than happy to see their favourite biccies made smaller.

“Consumers are likely to react badly if this is the only method used to reduce the fat and sugar content; value perception becomes an issue when product sizes are reduced beyond what they deem acceptable,” he says.

Alternative routes to explore include swapping sugar with sweeteners, such as stevia, xylitol and maltitol. The latter is used by Free’ist, which has a four-strong range of no-added sugar and sugar-free biscuits.

“It delivers a fuller flavour and better texture in baked snacks such as biscuits and cookies – without a lingering, over-sweet aftertaste,” says a Free’ist spokesperson. “Creating snack products without sugar can present challenges during the production process in terms of the consistency of the ingredients. We found that maltitol had an effective binding quality that tackled this.”

But sugar can’t simply be swapped for sweetener. To minimise issues when baking, a combination of sugar and sweetener can offer a compromise and is a step in the right direction in terms of health.

Fruit and certain vegetables, such as carrots, courgette and beetroot, also offer natural sweetness and nutrients, but fresh produce can bring a lot of moisture to a mix.

Very sweet inclusions, according to Adams, could allow for a reduction in sugar within the dough alongside the use of flavours such as vanilla, which enhance the sweetness perception. 

Nuts and seeds, while not necessarily low in calories, can help to improve the health credentials of a biscuit or cookie alongside other additions. Oxford’s Modern Baker focuses on nutritional content with ingredients such as seaweed, turmeric, olive oil and even sourdough added to its biscuits.

Fat is also an obvious ingredient to address and there are a myriad of alter-natives available. “We’re substituting a lot of high-fat ingredients like butter and oil with low-fat high-moisture ingredients like egg whites, quark, tofu and low-fat yoghurt,” explains Mariella Forte, managing director of The Skinny Bakery in London.

But this presents technical challenges. “Sugar can be reduced by around 20% relatively easily using a combination of oligosaccharides and/or polyols,” notes Adams. “Fat replacement is more difficult, and any major changes to fat levels are likely to have a significant impact on texture.”

With consumers unlikely to compromise on taste, texture and enjoyment in the name of health, Forte says: “There needs to be some balance between nutrition, calories and taste – some fat, some sugar and real chocolate, so that it tastes delicious, while being a bit better for you.”

Flour power for healthier bakes

Flour presents its own opportunities for making biscuits healthier, and bakers are starting to get experimental.

Oxford’s Modern Baker advocates the use of spelt, tigernut, buckwheat and even tapioca flour in its recipes, while some omit it completely – using ground almonds instead.

These are arguably more common in gluten-free baking and feature heavily in Arapina Bakery’s offering, alongside the use of organic wholemeal flour. “What you can do is look at flour alternatives such as rice, tapioca and buckwheat. These do not have any wheat or gluten at all,” says CEO and founder Michaela Pontiki.

Like any ingredient change, considerations need to be made. “You can’t just remove normal flour and introduce rice flour in the same quantities,” she adds, noting trial and error is the key to perfecting the recipe. “You have to make adjustments to keep moisture at the right level. You may have to reduce the flour and add perhaps some melted butter which will help to keep it moist.”

Different flours have distinct flavours, which can work well in biscuits, but Campden BRI’s Mike Adams warns they might not be to everyone’s taste. “Non-traditional flours do offer some interesting avenues to explore. However, their distinctive flavours and textures can be offputting for consumers,” he says.