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How to make healthy biscuits

This article looks at what you can do to reduce the salt, fat and sugar content of biscuits, and how to boost the level of fibre.



Health experts recommend that adults should consume a maximum of 6g of salt per day, however, research has shown that actual consumption is around 9.5g/day, with a high proportion hidden salt added to processed foods during their manufacture. High consumption of salt/sodium causes increased blood pressure which is directly linked to heart problems The UK has been focussing on sodium reduction in foods since 2003 (nearly 15 years). Public Health England published the targets for 2017 in March of 2017, and the guidelines for biscuits are:

Sweet biscuits include all filled and unfilled sweet biscuits, whether coated (full or half) or not, breakfast biscuits and cereal bars. 0.55g salt of 220mg sodium (average r)
Savoury biscuits include all filled and unfilled savoury biscuits.

1.3g salt or 520mg sodium (average r)
1.75g salt or 700 mg sodium (maximum)

The sodium in bread comes from mainly the addition of salt added for flavouring. However, the sodium in biscuits is added in various compounds/chemicals used for flavouring and leavening purposes, some common sources are:

  • Salt – Sodium Chloride
  • Sodium Bicarbonate – Source of carbon dioxide
  • Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate – Acidulant used in conjunction with sodium bicarbonate.

Reducing the salt content of biscuits and crackers can affect their flavour and make them less appealing. Producers have started to look at their leavening systems where there is potential to reduce the product sodium levels with less effect on taste. There are however a number of complications in doing this as follows:

Changing from sodium bicarbonate to potassium bicarbonate will lower the sodium level but potassium bicarbonate can give the final product an undesirable metallic taste.

Sodium bicarbonate is highly alkaline and this alkalinity is used in the baked biscuit to modify the biscuit pH so that surface browning takes place imparting an even baked colour onto the surface.

Sodium bicarbonate could be substituted with ammonium bicarbonate which creates carbon dioxide when heated and doesn’t need a neutralising acid it also has a neutral pH after baking and doesn’t impart any taste.

Sodium acid pyrophosphate (SAPP) is a heat activated acidulant used in combination with sodium bicarbonate and is also a source of sodium. SAPP is widely used in commercial baking powders due to its delayed reaction, but due to its sodium content manufacturers may want to consider alternatives. There are various chemical and natural acidulants that could be considered as replacers for SAPP, such as Glucono Delta Lactone (GDL) or Mono Calcium Phosphate (MCP). However, their concentration and reaction rates are different to SAPP and some formula rebalancing would be required. Natural acidulants such as fruit acids and lactic acid could also be considered but these react immediately on mixing with sodium bicarbonate and may need pretreatment by processes such as encapsulation to prevent the reaction occurring until heat is applied.

Lowering the sodium content of biscuits is not straightforward. There may not be a single solution and a toolbox approach may be needed.


Various studies have reported the UK population is consuming too much sugar and have directly linked this to increases in adult and childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. Public Health England has recently issued guidelines setting targets for maximum sugar content in all processed foods expressed as the number of grams of sugar per 100g product. The targets are to be achieved by 2020 with an overall reduction for biscuits of 20% (5% reduction to be achieved in year 1).

Biscuits: includes all types of sweet biscuits including cereal barls and toaster pastries (Pop Tarts); gluten free biscuits; two-finger Kit Kats Current sugar level - 32.8g /100g Less 5% sugar in year 1
New value - 31.2g/100g
Less 20% sugar by 2020
New value 26.2g/100g

These targets are sales-weighted average targets and could be achieved by reducing pack sizes or reformulating the product. When reformulating, it’s important to understand that sugar is multifunctional. In most baked goods, sucrose is not just added for sweetness - it also has a significant impact on dough/batter rheology and the colour and texture of the finished product. It’s not easy to replicate these effects when sucrose is reduced or replaced.

  • In biscuits, dissolved sucrose forms a glassy structure during baking and cooling. This helps to create different textures which are appealing to the consumers.
  • Dissolved sucrose causes cookie dough to flow during baking, which contributes to the size and appearance of the baked cookie.
  • Invert sugar (glucose/fructose syrup) combines with proteins on the surface of biscuits and crackers when heated and forms melanoidin. This is known as non-enzymic browning (Maillard reaction). This reaction occurs more rapidly in an alkaline pH.
  • Biscuits and wafers are often filled with fat/sugar based creams. Sucrose is the main component (60%) of these creams and is added for sweetness and to provide bulk. Jam, jelly, and marshmallow are made up of 60 to 80% sugar. The sugar holds onto the product moisture (lowering water activity) thereby extending the product’s mould free shelf life.

In the last few years there has been considerable activity in finding replacers for sucrose however when starting on a sugar reduction/replacement exercise it is important to consider:

  • All of the sources of sugar in the product. Raw materials such as wheat flour, oats, and dairy products also contain sugars and these need to be added into the nutritional breakdown of the final product.
  • A comparison of the sweetness levels of any potential replacers for sucrose as these can vary widely
  • The ability of any sucrose replacer to bind with water as this can affect the product water activity which may be important in composite products such as biscuits and marshmallows. Water activities of unfilled biscuits are generally in the range of 0.2 which is below the level that bacteria, yeasts, and moulds can grow. The water activity can rise if plain biscuits are combined with high water activity fillings or toppings
  • Any restrictions or side effects associated with the use of sucrose replacement. Polyols can cause laxative effects and if a product contains more than 10% polyols this has to be stated on the packaging.
  • High intensity sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharine and Stevia aren’t permitted in fine bakery products, including biscuits

Some of the most popular sugar replacers are:

  • Inulin - a group of fructooligosaccharides with different chain lengths and sweetness values
  • Fibres, such as polydextrose
  • Polyols – including the sugar alcohol groups:
    • Glycerol
    • Sorbitol
    • Erythritol
    • Maltitol
    • Xylitol
    • Mannitol
    • Lactitol

The following table contains a list of the sweetness values and water binding abilities of various sugars and sugar alternatives which may be helpful when reformulating products. For comparison, these are all compared to sucrose, which has a nominal value of 1.

Sugar type Relative Sweetness Water binding ability Energy Kcal/g
Fructose 1.70 1.4 4
Sucrose 1.00 1.0 4
Dextrose 0.80 1.3 4
High DE Glucose Syrup 0.65 0.9 4
Regular Glucose Syrup 0.30 0.6 4
Lactose 0.27 1.2 4
Inulin 0.50 varies 2
Salt N/A 11.0 0
Sorbitol 0.55 2.0


Glycerol 0.80 4.0 4.3

Extremely sweet sugars, like fructose, have been used to prepare biscuits with reduced sugar claims as they can deliver similar sweetness to sucrose, but at much lower levels. However, in products which normally contain high sucrose levels, such as cookies or ginger nuts, the texture may not be the same when a sweet sugar is substituted for sucrose. Fructose could be blended with a material like inulin to give a similar texture as sucrose, but with fewer calories. Polyols can also be used as partial or total replacers for sucrose, however, the products must be labeled with the potential side effects and most polyols are not as sweet as sucrose, which may reduce the product acceptability.

There are no currently UK government guidelines on the quantity of fats that bakery products should contain however it is widely recognised that too much fat is being consumed. Too much fat in your diet, especially saturated fats, can raise cholesterol levels, which increases the risk of heart disease. Current UK government guidelines advise cutting down on all fats and replacing saturated fat with some unsaturated fat. Some manufacturers are now declaring levels of sugar, fat, saturated fat or salt using a traffic light system printed on the main panel of the pack, this is not a requirement and is done voluntarily.

Red: the product is high in this nutrient (sugar, fat, saturated fat or salt). It’s fine to have this occasionally, or in small amounts, just make sure you don’t have these products too often.
Amber: the product is neither high nor low in this nutrient, so it’s an OK choice most of the time.
Green: the product contains a low amount of this nutrient – so the more green lights, the healthier the choice!

Biscuits are often high in fat and the blends used contain high levels of saturated fats with functional properties which aren’t present in unsaturated fats. The role of fat is extremely important in short dough biscuits. The properties of fat include forming a continuous matrix which binds the other ingredients together during processing, encapsulating the added water in the dough which limits gluten formation and tenderising the biscuits.

Fat reduced biscuits have been marketed for many years in the UK often declared as light versions of well-known brands. If the claim is related to reduced fat this must be stated and the fat reduction must be at least 30% less fat compared to the standard product. The reduction in fat can cause the dough to be tougher and more difficult to machine and sometimes require more robust forming equipment. Emulsifiers such as SSL or monoglycerides may help to reduce these issues and also improve the biscuit texture, shape, and size.

Hydrocolloid gels can also be used to aid fat reduction. Hydrocolloid gels can bind water and oil in roughly equal quantities. We have developed systems based on alginates as the gelling material and liquid oils (unsaturated fats) and water. These gels were added into short dough biscuits at 25, 50 and 75% replacement levels for the dough fat. Biscuits from fat replacement trials using alginate gels at Campden BRI

There is considerable evidence linking diets rich in fibre to reduced risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The challenge is to increase fibre in spite of the technical issues with fibre addition while meeting the needs of consumers.
Incorporating fibres into biscuit doughs can be challenging. Fibre tends to bind water in the dough which can reduce the water level available to other ingredients, some of which may not be fully hydrated or dissolved. If additional water is added this may form gluten and it can be difficult to bake the water out and can result in “checking”.
Some examples of fibre used in baking are:

  • Cereal bran present in wheat, oats, rye etc
  • Fruit and vegetable fibre found in apple, orange, nuts and sugar beet.
  • Non-starch polysaccharides such as pectins, gums, and cellulose
  • Non-digestible oligosaccharides such as inulin and fructooligosaccharides
  • Resistant starches present in wheat, potatoes, green bananas etc.

The addition of fibre can have a negative effect on consumer acceptance of biscuits as it can change the texture making it coarser. In products where fibre isn’t considered an intrinsic part of the end product characteristics, this may result in consumer rejecting the product. In these biscuits, the use of finely ground powders or materials high in soluble fibres could be used. Some biscuits are liked because of their coarse texture such as digestives and hobnobs. These have been developed with high levels of cereal bran which is coarse in texture whole grains often being added to further differentiate the biscuit texture.


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