25% Less Sugar, but Still Just as Indulgent

Researchers at Penn State may just be the heroes we need. In a blind taste test, their 25% less sugar chocolate rated equally to, or higher than, regular chocolate.

“We were able to show that there is a range in which you can manage a sizable reduction in added sugar and people won’t notice and don’t care, in terms of liking,” said John Hayes, professor of food science at Penn State and corresponding author on the study. “We’re never going to make chocolate healthy, because it’s an indulgence, but we can successfully take out some of the sugar for consumers who are trying to reduce their intake of added sugars.”

Chocolate is, by weight, half sugar; the rest is fat and cocoa solids. The sugar sweetens and adds bulk, so removing or reducing it can drastically alter the flavor, consistency, and texture.

Gregory Ziegler, distinguished professor of food science at Penn State and co-author of the study, had the idea of testing two different grains as added sugar replacements: rice and oats. Each has fine, granular starches that, unfortunately, won’t reduce the calories in chocolate or make it any healthier, but will reduce the added sugar content, which does have potential health benefits.

The team conducted two blind taste tests using dark chocolate with varying levels of reduced sugar and grain flour. The first test of 66 participants evaluated whether people would notice a difference between 6 varieties of chocolate:

  • A control with the standard level of sugar (54%).
  • Four sugar-reduced versions with 25% or 50% sugar reductions and the addition of oat or rice flour.
  • One 54% sugar chocolate with reduced refining time to test if the grinding time would affect the texture.

The participants rated the 25% sugar-reduced chocolates and the chocolate with reduced refining time similar to the control. The 50% reduced sugar chocolate with rice flour was rated significantly different from the control due to a reported “chalkier texture.” The oat flour chocolates, however, were described as “smoother, softer, and creamier.”

The second test included 90 participants, pitting the 25% reduced sugar chocolates of both flours against the regular chocolate control. Each person got one square of each chocolate and rated them by flavor, texture, sweetness, and overall liking. As you might have guessed, the rice flour chocolate was rated significantly less likable than the control. The oat flour chocolate, however, was placed equally to (and even higher in some cases) the control chocolate made with 54% sugar.

“Our results suggest we can cut back 25% of added sugar to chocolate, effectively reducing the total sugar by 13.5%, if we substitute oat flour,” said Kai Kai Ma, a doctoral candidate in food science at Penn State and co-author on the paper.

The team is reaching out to contacts in the chocolate industry to share their findings. 

The team published their findings in the Journal of Food Science.

The heroes we need, indeed.

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