Four out of five (80 percent) shoppers are limiting or avoiding sugars in foods, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2019 Food and Health Survey. To do this, studies show a growing number of shoppers rely on the sugar — and now the “added sugar” — content of foods as a basis for the decision to purchase and consume. This includes meat and poultry products.

Added sugars became a mandatory subset of the total sugars line in the Nutrition Facts on Jan. 1, 2020, for manufacturers with annual sales of at least $10 million. Smaller companies have an extra year to comply.

“Although consumer confusion about food and health remains high, one area showing the strongest consensus is the desire to reduce the amount of sugar in an individual diet,” says Mel Mann, director of flavor innovation, Wixon, St. Francis, Wisconsin. “Reasons behind this may be weight management, as well as to avoid health complications such as diabetes, cavities and other negative issues associated with high-sugar consumption.”

Further, diets that endorse a very low sugar-intake lifestyle, such as ketogenic, paleo and Whole30, have gained popularity among younger Americans. This momentum is projected to continue.

For these reasons, meat and poultry products, which tend to be mostly protein with some fat, are attractive meal and snack options. Removing added sugars and claiming so on product labels helps a product get noticed by those shoppers trying to cut as much added sugar from their diet as possible.

Sugar, in its many forms and sources, including granulated cane sugar, honey and maple syrup, is typically present in very low levels, if at all, in meat and poultry. This includes everything from marinated fresh chicken breasts to uncooked bacon to beef jerky. Pork products tend to contain the most, as sugar is a characterizing sweet flavor in honey baked ham and maple breakfast sausage.

While sugar is often used in large quantities in curing, the residual amount that remains tends to be miniscule enough that it does not appear in the Nutrition Facts panel. But it is still on the ingredient statement and for some strict sugar avoiders, that’s a deal breaker.

Sugar has multiple functions in chemically cured and uncured meat and poultry, as well as many smoked and dried products. Sugar dehydrates, while it also helps retain moisture throughout processing and storage. In comminuted products, sugar may stabilize the emulsion of moisture, fat and protein. Sugar also balances salt and sour/fermented tastes. It even assists with the development, and retention, of appealing color through the Maillard browning reaction, which involves reducing sugars and amino acids, and caramelization, which mostly involves enzymatic breakdown of non-reducing sugars. To eliminate sugar from the ingredient statement, as well as have added sugars be zero on the Nutrition Facts panel, formulators have to explore their toolbox of flavoring and seasoning ingredients that exert functions that resemble sugar.

With many prepared meats and poultry, it is possible to reduce or eliminate added sugars through the use of flavors that provide sweetness. Fruit powders and juices serve as natural sources of sweetness. With marinades and sauces, non-nutritive sweeteners, such as stevia, monk fruit and some sugar alcohols, can be used to partially or fully replace added sugars.

Godshall’s Quality Meats, Telford, Pennsylvania, now offers a full line of sugar-free bacons — beef, pork and turkey — all made without added sugar or carbohydrates, while delivering the full, real-wood smoked taste consumers crave. The sugar-free line is especially appealing to consumers following a keto diet, according to the company.

The keto diet is approximately 70 percent fat, 20 percent protein, and 5 percent each simple carbohydrates and non-starchy vegetables, making meat, in particular fatty meats such as bacon, an attractive food. By eating a lot of fat and very few carbohydrates, the body is forced into a metabolic state known as ketosis. This is when the body burns fat instead of carbohydrates for energy. The liver converts fat into fatty acids and ketone bodies, with the latter traveling to the brain and fueling the body, the traditional role of glucose obtained from carbohydrates. Burning ketones in place of glucose is associated with weight loss, reduced inflammation, sustained energy and more.

Keto-friendly menu options are growing in foodservice, too. This requires careful use of marinades, sauces and any other ingredients that could contribute undesirable carbohydrates.

If high-protein, less fat and no added sugar is the dieting objective, then Godshall’s sugar-free turkey option makes the most sense.

“Our real dark meat blend has 65 percent less fat than pork bacon,” says Ron Godshall, president. “That adds up to a hearty, satisfying taste with a lot less of what may have kept many consumers from enjoying bacon.”

All three varieties of the sugar-free bacon line are all-natural and uncured, containing only sea salt and celery powder to naturally preserve freshness, according to Godshall. These attributes are claimed on package labels.

When it comes to flagging sugar content on product labels, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is very specific on permissible sugar claims. “Sugar-free” callouts may be made on products with less than 0.5 grams of sugars per reference amounts customarily consumed (RACC) and per labeled serving. “No added sugars” and “without added sugars” claims are allowed if no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient, such as concentrated fruit juice, is added during processing.

“Reduced-sugar” and “less-sugar” claims are possible when there’s at least 25 percent fewer grams of sugar per RACC. When making such a claim, the label must also state the comparison, such as “50 percent less sugar than [the reference food].” While the descriptor “low” is defined by FDA as it relates to some nutrients as well as calories, it has not been authorized for use with sugar; therefore, low-sugar claims violate FDA’s labeling regulations.