In the past decade, we’ve gone from fearing fat to securing a sustained suspicion of sugar. This is hardly surprising, considering the revelation that scientific research of the past has downplayed the role of sugar in heart disease, promoting dietary fat as the cause of coronary heart disease instead of sugar. Low-sugar and sugar-free options have boomed since it has been discovered that the ingredient is unsavoury not only in taste but also in dietary impact.
However, very few people are entirely renouncing sugar from their diet. Even those who are, remain eager to find sweet alternatives, giving them access to a full range of flavour and texture when eating and drinking out. This means that now more than ever, restaurants and bars must be positioned at the forefront of creative customisation, seeking new and innovative ways of serving customers with low-sugar and even sugar-free diets.
This is not just a matter of public service. As professional dietician and blogger Alex Curtis, R.D., from A Spoonful of Sugar Free explains, tailoring your offering to sugar-conscious consumers can also affect the bottom line:
“With diseases like diabetes on the rise and new research on the consequences of eating too much added sugar, more people than ever are on low sugar and “sugar-free” diets. Restaurants and bars wanting to cater to their customers can increase sales and appeal to a larger audience by offering items lower in sugar.”
So how exactly are restaurants and bars to cater to this sugar-aware demographic? Alex suggests, “Consumers are looking for desserts that are whole-foods based, tasty drinks sweetened with all-natural fruit juices, marinades, sauces, and vinaigrettes that are not loaded with sugar and artificial flavours. Whole, clean foods are definitely popular.”
With increasing amounts of people looking for healthier options, whether in dinners, drinks or desserts, these approaches are certainly worth exploring…
Focus on fruits
Whilst strict sugar naysayers may advise restricting your intake of fructose-based sugars, many nutritionists laud the many health benefits of fruits, from their high vitamin content to the essential fibres they contain. Fruits are also perfect for sweetening dishes in a natural manner without using refined sugars.
For example, Alex recommends various uses for fruits in low-sugar desserts: “I love working with dates for their sweetness in desserts and sauces. Fruit is very sweet on its own and has many complex flavours. For example, grilling pineapple and topping with coconut and cinnamon can be a yummy, lighter twist for desserts.”
Whether you choose to design a brownie with dates as a key ingredient creating sweetness and that fudgy texture; or simply opt for a fruit-centric cocktail menu with a choice of personalised fresh ingredient combinations, fruit is certainly the way forward in offering a natural alternative to refined sugars.
Cutting the carbs
Low-carb diets are hardly a new phenomenon, but in more recent years the emphasis has shifted away from worrying about direct weight gain and towards an awareness of the high sugar content that processed carbohydrates contain. As Lisa from Low Carb Yum explains, “With diabetes and obesity on the rise, many are moving to low carb diets to eat less sugar and other simple carbohydrates.”
Offering carb alternatives is a fantastic way of reducing the sugar content of dinners and lunches where sugar is not necessarily an ingredient in its basic form. You might not think that your pasta dish will ring alarm bells for sugar-conscious consumers, but you would be wrong. Offering customers the choice to customise their dish and swap white pastas for other items is a great way of creatively catering to this concern. Lisa suggests: “One simple method would be to offer spiralized vegetables as an option to pasta noodles.” Things like ‘zoodles’ are not just a fad – they’re a legitimate way to alleviate the weight of sugar-dense processed carbs.
Of course, one of the easiest ways to reduce the monopoly that refined sugars have on your food or drinks menu is to use one of the many alternatives and variants on the market. Most chefs and consumers would agree with Alex when she says, “I recommend staying away from sugar substitutes like Splenda and aspartame. Many people still like to avoid these sweeteners and they might not react well with their bodies.” However, there are now several much more natural and nutritious sugar variants available.
Moderation, though, is still key. The most sugar-savvy guests will know that agave syrup is three times sweeter than sugar, and therefore only a third of the amount of the nectar is needed to achieve the full effect. Head Chef and owner Ben Asamani, from one of London’s top vegan restaurants, 222 Vegan Cuisine, tells us, “In the restaurant, we choose to use coconut sugar only in hot beverages when requested by the customer. We also may use maple syrup or agave nectar only in our deserts.”
As Ben indicates, giving the guest agency in their choice of how much (and which type of) sweetener to consume is paramount here. If you’re catering to hard-core sugar sceptics, only use alternatives like agave where necessary in dishes designed to be sweet. Otherwise, consider serving desserts with a choice of sweeteners on the side. This customised experience allows consumers to use sweeteners to taste, delivering a personalised touch they will truly appreciate.
Amping up the flavours
When you’re reducing the sugar in a dish, the first temptation may be to either look for an alternative sweetener for drinks or desserts in order to bring out the other flavours. Instead, why not try using spices and other enhancements to amp up the flavour profile?
Alex suggests, “Adding extra flavour through spices can make a world of difference. Start with cutting down at least half the sugar in your recipes. It can make a world of difference and still taste great. Working with spices and salt can also manipulate certain foods to taste sweeter.”
Often, those looking to reduce the amount of sugar they consume are also likely to be in search of sophisticated flavour profiles. These are therefore the perfect customers to offer unusual flavour combinations – be it adding a hot element like chilli to a fruit-based drink, or introducing cinnamon to a casserole for natural aromatics. Get experimental, and don’t be afraid to try out new combinations. These are the brave consumers, after all!
Raw-food diets may seem like a passing trend, but as consumers become more aware of the side-effects of sugar and processed foods, this fashion is only set to grow. In fact, offering ‘raw’ options in your menu is one of the easiest ways to monitor sugar content. Think about it – you can taste sugar far easier in, say, a sorbet than in a chocolate soufflé. In cold and raw dishes, a little goes a long way in sweetening dishes.
Lisa advises restaurants to include one or more basic desserts like ice cream or cheesecake made without added sugar, simply using fruits to sweeten the palate. Alex, on the other hand, recommends sticking with whole foods wherever possible, whether this is pulsing cashews to create an ice cream or using dried fruits to bind cakes.
From salads to desserts, raw dishes also give customers an element of transparency – they can ask front-of-house staff exactly what is in a dish and how it has been prepared. This is not to mention the nutritional benefits that unmodified whole fruits and vegetables can offer.
As any food blogger pursuing a low-sugar lifestyle will tell you, the eating and drinking out industry still has a long way to go when it comes to catering to health-conscious consumers. Alex admits, “As of yet, I haven't found a lot of mainstream restaurants that cater to sugar-free individuals. There are, however, a few locally-owned cafes popping up that have embraced sugar-free lifestyles.”
But customised sugar alternatives should be available to guests in all establishments – not only the small-scale ventures themselves dedicated to healthy options. For the wellbeing of both the public and the foodservice sector, low-sugar options must become standard. The best way to make this happen is to empower the consumer to choose how they will regulate their sugar intake by offering flexible, personalised alternatives to the ramifications of refined sugars.