Definitions of the term ’artificial’ are almost as hotly contested as its flip side, ’natural’. But when it comes to sweeteners, at least, there is a fairly clear distinction to be made between what is ’artificial’ and what is not (see panel). What is more controversial, especially in the context of baked goods, is where these different types of sweetener can, and should, be used.

This spring saw the relaunch of a Europe-wide campaign to allow the use of intense sweeteners in the production of ’energy-reduced’ sweet baked goods and those ’with no added sugar’. This was waged by the Brussels-based CAOBISCO chocolate, biscuit and confectionery manufacturers’ association, together with the International Sweeteners Association. Not for the first time, their efforts were fended off by the member state food authorities. CAOBISCO’s director of regulatory affairs Penelope Alexandre explains: "They claim not to see the benefit for consumers, and say they need to look into it more closely."

She paints a picture of rejection and disappointment, warning: "There’s an obesity epidemic, and we need to do something about this. We need to reformulate." Heat-stable intense sweeteners would make a valuable contribution here, she argues.

This time around, the associations came armed with a new dossier and an agreement that any change would only affect packaged goods, so that consumers would have information about the sweeteners in each product. But to no avail.

For its part, the Food Standards Authority (FSA) conjures up an image of reasoned deliberation. A spokeswoman reports "an initial discussion", where "no decision was taken". She adds: "To take forward the discussion between member states and the European Parliament, the FSA wants to see a debate involving stakeholders, which would cover the technological need for the use of intense sweeteners, as well as an assessment of their safety."

Any ball would recognise this as shorthand for being kicked into some very long grass. CAOBISCO claims not to have abandoned its efforts entirely. But there is little point fighting for a level playing field when you cannot even get near the pitch.

So what of the permitted alternatives? Alexandre admits that polyols have already made substantial contributions to reducing sugar. And at French supplier Roquette, market development manager Henri Gilliard says: "Our SweetPearl maltitol has a lower glycemic index and 40% fewer calories than sugar. The calorie reduction for reformulated biscuits, compared to those with sugar, will be between 5% and 10%."

But CAOBISCO also points out that polyols can have a laxative effect, requiring an on-pack warning. And perhaps most importantly, they do not give the same sweetness profile or intensity as sugar.

Henry Hussell, head of marketing at Cargill Sweetness Europe, confirms that products containing more than 10% polyols do require a laxative warning. "To justify an ’energy-reduced’ or ’calorie-reduced’ claim, a product must achieve a minimum 30% energy reduction," he explains. In a snack bar, this might mean replacing 25g of sugar with a combination of 6.25g of sugar and 18.75g of polyols. "In practice, there would also need to be additional reductions of the fat and carbohydrate content," he says. "In many cases, it would be necessary to reformulate the product, as well as the process conditions, to achieve a calorie-reduced product with desirable characteristics."

Tantalisingly, he adds: "It’s too early to give any details, but we are working on fresh approaches in the bakery area, that would enable manufacturers to provide ’better for you’ products that can deliver on traditional ’eating enjoyment’ expectations."


=== Sweet and sour notes ===

Bulk sweeteners, including the polyols sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol and xylitol, are produced from cereals by a process of hydrogenation. Intense sweeteners, sometimes characterised as ’artificial sweeteners’, are the result of chemical synthesis. Heat-stable intense sweeteners include sucralose and neotame.

Polyols are authorised in the EU (Directive 94/35/EC) for use in energy-reduced and no-added-sugar fine bakery products, as well as certain confectionery and chocolate categories, says supplier Roquette.

Intense sweeteners, on the other hand, are only permitted in fine bakery products intended for special nutritional purposes - that is, dietary products - even though their use in no-added-sugar confectionery is allowed.