Sweets contain a lot of sugar. Sweeter they are the more sugar there is in them. When there is more sugar, the other nutrients are less. So, there is always a caution by doctors and nutritionists not to consume sweets or at least control the consumption.
Western diets usually contain plenty of sweets. They start eating confectionery right from breakfast where many have coffee and donuts. They also eat plenty of cakes and ice creams so their sugar consumption is very high. Indians too love sweets but they neither consume so regularly nor their intake is as much.
In 2016, total candy consumed in the US was over 5 million pounds whereas figures for others were: China 4.7, Germany 2.3, UK 1.5, while for India it was over 1.1. Per Capita consumption in Germany was the highest at 28.7 pounds (Ouyang 2016).
According to a survey, most western consumers have sweets regularly. Over 60% of Germans, Russians and Brits said they consumed regularly. Asians consumed much less with 30% or less claiming (Buchholz 2021).
People in the US consumed more sugar than any other country with 126.4 g sugar per day (Pariona 2019). Indians were consuming over 21 g sugar per day in 2000 but it is rapidly increasing (Dasgupta et al. 2015).
What Confectionery Do People Eat and Why
Western consumers eat confectionery like chocolate, candies, donuts, cookies, cakes, pastries, ice creams and various other sugar confectionery and drink a lot of soft drinks. Indians are partial to milk and pulse based sweets but also many cereal based confectionery products are popular. They love milk based peda, barfi, rasgulla, sandesh etc. as well as pulse based besan laddu, Mysore pak, soan papdi etc.
While elsewhere people consume confectionery at any occasion as fun foods, Indians usually have sweets at festivals. These festivals may be religious, social as well as some special occasions to celebrate the event. Thus, commonly Indians do not consume these sweets just for fun. However, these customs are changing. Not only Indians are consuming western confectionery at festivals but also they consume them as fun foods at any time. Thus, we are following western habits and customs.
Functions of Sugar in Foods
Sugar has several functions. Of course, its taste is very pleasant. Even from infancy, humans loved the taste of sugar. Its sweetness gives pleasure. So any food can be made more acceptable by adding sugar to it. It also makes sourness more acceptable when sugar is added.
Sugar at certain level prevents growth of microbes and helps preservation of foods. Jams, jellies and preserves contain sugar at levels to stop microbial growth and fruit and vegetable products last for a long time without spoilage.
Sugar also provides desirable texture. In jelly, sugar binds water and lets pectin give the gel like structure to form. If sugar is less the gel will not set. Also, in some other confectionery like candies it provides the desirable texture. It has the ability to hold water so the exact hardness or softness could be achieved.
Caramelisation occurs when sugar syrup is heated and this develops both brown colour and flavour which is more acceptable.
Thus, sugar has several functions and so when one tries to reduce the sugar content to make food less calorie dense to make it healthier, care must be taken that other properties of food due to sugar are not adversely affected. So, reduction should be done carefully.
Making Sweets Healthier Strategy
There are a few strategies that could be used to make the confectionery products healthier. First and most obvious is to reduce the sugar content. In many products sugar could be from 40 to 60% and the first attempt would be to reduce the sugar content. This would certainly reduce the sweetness to some extent and would also change the texture because the proportion of other substances would be higher.
Sweetness could be recovered by either high intensity sweeteners such as stevia, sucralose, aspartame, saccharine, acesulfame, thaumatin etc. or some polyols like maltitol, sorbitol, xylitol etc. could be used. Sometimes fructo-oligosaccharide may be added as fibre, which has sweet taste.
Sugar consumption at high level causes rapid rise in blood sugar levels, which is not very healthy, and over a period, it may cause insulin insensitivity. However, protein and dietary fibre, especially soluble fibre helps prevent very sharp rise of blood sugar levels. Thus the ill effects of sugar consumption could be mitigated to some extent by these two other components. This would also make the sweets healthier by lowering the glycemic index (GI) of sweets. However, it must be realised that one must also be careful of glycemic load (GL) and ever though such sweets may have lower GI, too much of consumption may have high GL causing very sharp rise in blood sugar levels.
Many Indian sweets made with dairy base like khoa or pulse base such as besan or mung have this advantage that they slow down the blood sugar rise. However there are other sweets which do not have this advantage. When sweets need to made healthier, one can think of increasing the protein and soluble dietary fibre content by proper choice of ingredients.
There are also many other ingredients now available that could be added to provide healthier alternatives. Many sweets are made with added fruits and nuts which not only add different taste but also makes them healthier by adding protein, fibre and other healthier components. Amla candy is a traditional sweet with some health benefits. Extracts may be added to improve antioxidants and other beneficial components.
There is interest among consumers for healthier versions of sweets, so they can still continue to eat sweets with somewhat lesser impact of ill effects. Dark chocolates are becoming very popular as they have less sugar and higher level of cocoa, which provides healthy components.
Finally, we love our sweets and confectioneries, but we also need to watch for our health as Indians are prone to many lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart dieases, hypertension and obesity among others. With slight changes in the formulations we can not only make our delightful sweets loved by old and young but make them healthy and nutritious.