Roles Sugar Plays in Foods

Sugar is not hidden in foods and plays many roles beyond just sweetness

Sugar (sucrose) is best known to provide sweetness to foods. However, sugar is a versatile ingredient and contributes many functional properties to food products. 

  • Flavour Balance. Sugar adds sweetness, and balances acidic and bitter flavours in tomato and vinegar-based sauces, dressings and brines;
  • Preservation. Sugar stops bacteria from growing and delays spoilage. 
  • Texture and Mouthfeel. Sugar helps provide the soft structure in baked goods and the smoothness in frozen dairy products;
  • Volume. Sugar adds volume to different products, and that allows them to be tall, fluffy, or soft. 
  • Colour. Sugar reacts with heat (caramelization) or with heat and proteins (Maillard reaction) to create a golden brown colour in baked goods and sauces.
  • Taste. A little bit of sugar can make high-fibre foods taste better. 
  • Challenges in Sugar Replacement and Reformulation. While some functions can be replaced by other ingredients, others are unique to sugar. Because there is no single universal sugar replacer that can be used in every application, it can often be a challenge to reduce or remove sugar in some recipes.

Six Roles Sugar Plays in Foods:

Sugar balances the flavour of sour and acidic foods

Sugar helps preserve jams and jellies and extends the shelf life of baked goods

Sugar creates texture and mouthfeel in ice creams, jams, puddings, and doughs

Sugar acts as a food for yeast, helping breads rise

Sugar undergoes chemical reactions when heated to give a golden brown colour to baked goods

A small amount of sugar can improve the taste of high fibre foods

Want to see sugar in action? Watch as Chef Claire Tansey demonstrates the various roles sugar plays in:

Quick-pickled Carrots (flavour, texture)

Caramel Salmon with Puy Lentils (caramelization)

Genoise Cake with Buttercream Icing (texture, boiling point increase)

Challenges in Sugar Replacement and Reformulation

Sugar plays many roles in foods. While some can be achieved with other sweeteners, certain functions are unique to sugar. This can make it difficult to reduce or remove the amount of sugar in certain recipes. If you are trying to reduce the amount of sugar in a home recipe, it is best to experiment by reducing the amount used by small increments and see if the taste, texture, and colour remain to your preference.

Due to the multiple functions sugar plays in foods, to reduce or remove sugar from a product is not a simple exchange of one ingredient with another. Furthermore, depending on the replacement ingredients (e.g. starches, dextrins) total calories may not be lower than the original product. The reformulated product will typically have more ingredients on the ingredients list, some of which may not be recognized by the general consumer and will typically include additives, such as gums, thickeners, or bulking agents.

For example, in the regular and “No Sugar Added” ice creams below, the "No Sugar Added" ice cream has 60% less sugars, but is slightly higher in fat and total Calories as compared to the reference ice cream. Based on its Nutrition Facts table, this "No Sugar Added" ice cream is sweetened with a sugar alcohol (maltitol, 8 grams per 1/2 cup of ice cream). 

Comparison between a regular and "no sugar added" ice cream

For more information, additional resources include:

Recent news items include:


Goldfein KR, Slavin JL. Why Sugar is added to foods: Food Science 101 Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. 2015. Vol 14;644 – 656.

Cooper JM. Product Reformulation – Can Sugar be replaced in foods? International Sugar Journal 2012, Vol 114;1365.