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Friday, July 12, 2024

The Doughnut Wars Are Here

We are living through an era of doughnut innovation like no other. Future historians will debate when this epoch began—did it all start with the cronut?—but even the most casual doughnut guzzler knows this is a golden era for glazed goods. We are spoiled with variations on a creme that our ancestors did not dare to dream of. Cookies on doughnuts! Cookies inside doughnuts! Pork floss doughnuts! Doughnuts rolled in cheese! Sourdough doughnuts! Gluten free! Vegan! Yellow! Red! Rainbow! Healthy doughnuts!

Wait … healthy doughnuts? Surely not. Everyone knows that doughnuts are deeply unhealthy. That’s the whole point. Take away the sugary glaze and oily smoosh of dough and what are you left with? Nothing. You’ll have to prize our sugared rings from our caramel-coated fingers. Some things are too sacred to give up.

Or maybe we don’t have to. A shake-up of food rules in the United Kingdom has sparked a new kind of doughy disruption: the quest for healthy confectionery. Or, if not healthy exactly, then at least much healthier than the fried goods currently on offer. The winds of change are blowing, and they smell a lot like delicious steam-baked dough.

Leading the charge is British doughnut brand Urban Legend. “I picked doughnuts because their health credentials are genuinely quite dreadful,” says founder Anthony Fletcher. In the UK, most prepackaged food is labeled according to a “traffic light” system where products are rated for their fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt content per 100 grams. If the nutrients are over a certain threshold—for fat it’s 17.5 grams, for sugar it’s 22.5 grams—then the product gets a red traffic light label for that category. Deep-fried and sugar-coated, doughnuts have labels that are a sea of red and orange.

These blazing traffic lights were the beacon that led Fletcher to his current venture. In previous roles he’d helped reinvent fruit juice and sparked a craze for healthier snacking, but by 2020 he finally felt ready to tackle the one frontier that health food fads had barely touched: the baked goods aisle. “Having spent 20 years trying to sell healthy food to consumers, it’s really hard to get people to change,” he says. The UK bakery market is worth £4.4 billion ($5.5 billion)—more than its markets for potato chips, breakfast cereal, or sliced meats—and almost all of it is unremittingly unhealthy. “If you want to make the largest change to public health, then you’ve got to take the junk out of junk food,” Fletcher says. He thought that a healthier doughnut might be a way to nudge people toward diets that were lower in fat and sugar without asking them to give anything up. A have-your-doughnut-and-eat-it approach to nutrition, if you will.

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It just so happens—and Fletcher maintains that this timing was a coincidence—that as he was mulling over the prospect of a low-fat, low-sugar doughnut, the UK government was limbering up to introduce legislation to restrict how and where unhealthy foods are sold.

The new rules, which came into force in October 2022, ban the sale of certain foods high in fat, sugar, and salt near supermarket entrances, on the ends of aisles, or near checkouts. An ocean of prime supermarket real estate awaited anyone who could make a doughnut that avoided certain thresholds for fat, sugar, and salt. With a stroke of a legislator’s pen, the stage for the new doughnut wars was set.

The Space Race

Placement means everything in supermarkets, and the most coveted spots are at the ends of each aisle. “Those ends of aisles are instrumental for signposting people to where they need to go,” says Will Morgan, associate director at the consumer research agency Spark Emotions. As shoppers mosey down the power aisle—Morgan’s term for the central aisle connecting all others—they are bombarded by brands that have paid to have their products in prime position. According to Morgan’s data, 40 percent of shoppers who pause at a promotional aisle-end go on to explore the whole aisle beyond. Those few meters of end-of-aisle shelf space aren’t just about selling people discounted potato chips; they’re reminding shoppers that a whole world of potato chips exists just a short stroll away.

The new rules are an attempt to wrest control of the aisle-ends away from typically unhealthy foods. “The first thing we see when we walk into supermarkets often aren’t the foods we should be eating,” says Lauren Bandy, a food policy researcher at the University of Oxford. But the rules have another objective: They’re trying to nudge food companies to reformulate their snacks into slightly more healthy versions that can be sold everywhere. In 2018, the UK government launched a tax on soft drinks that contained more than 5 grams of sugar per 100 milliliters. Drinks companies scrambled to swap sugar for artificial sweeteners, and a year later the average household was buying just as many soft drinks, but with 10 percent less sugar than before.

This basically makes the policy a win, says Bandy. While there are still questions over how good for us sweeteners are, the sugar tax allowed food companies to keep profiting and shoppers to keep glugging soda while reducing sugar levels in soft drinks. For a government like the UK’s—which wants to tackle the obesity crisis without telling people what to do or upsetting big food corporations—it was a pretty good result.

But reformulating soft drinks is relatively easy: It’s just a matter of replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners. To avoid the British government’s new snack regulations, Fletcher would have a much bigger challenge. He needed to remove 70 percent of the fat and 30 to 40 percent of the sugar from supermarket doughnuts. “What I discovered is that as soon as you do, all hell breaks loose and it tastes dreadful,” he says. Fat and sugar play a dizzying number of roles in doughnuts. They feed yeast, extend shelf life, improve mouthfeel, and give glaze its crackly surface. Alter the ratios and very quickly you end up with a crappy doughnut.

The complex interaction of fats, proteins, and sugars really comes into its own when you dunk that dough in the deep fat fryer, which is how most doughnuts are cooked.

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Introduce raw dough into oil heated to 365 degrees Fahrenheit and all kinds of magical things start to happen, says Amy Rowat, a professor of biophysics at the University of California, Los Angeles. The hot oil rapidly evaporates water from the dough’s surface, leaving a crisp shell which hardens while the inside of the doughnut steams. Amino acids and sugars on the doughnut’s edge rearrange themselves in the Maillard reaction, browning the dough and imparting notes of caramel and chocolate.

After this act of transubstantiation, you’re left with a golden doughnut with just a thin layer of fat that coats your mouth with the first bite. (The purest expression of the art of deep frying is the Moroccan sfenj—small, savory fritters fried to order and so pillowy that you can practically wring them out before you chow down. Delicious.)

In addition to being hot and oily, deep frying is also fast. It takes about one minute and 20 seconds to deep fry a doughnut, just enough time to form a thin crust that holds moisture inside. Baking a doughnut takes closer to 10 minutes, which is ample time for all that precious moisture to escape into the atmosphere, leaving behind a dry, claggy doughnut.

Fletcher knew he had to avoid deep frying if he wanted to get his doughnuts under the government’s saturated fat limit. He started off by steaming the doughnuts, which turned them into a soggy mess. Then he tried infrared heat, which dried them out too much. Eventually he settled on a technique called steam baking: The doughnuts are baked at a low temperature for around seven minutes before being blasted with hot steam for a short while. This gives enough time for the air bubbles in the doughnut to expand before the steam jets harden the exterior of the dough. Since the lack of a deep-fried shell leaves his doughnuts vulnerable to drying out, Fletcher adjusts the cream in his filled doughnuts so they gradually leak moisture, rehydrating the surrounding dough.

Doughnut perfection is an elusive goal—particularly when you’re constrained by the amount of fat and sugar you can put into your dough. When Fletcher cuts into a doughnut he interrogates its properties with the focus of a master sommelier. Are the air bubbles uniformly sized? Does the dough bounce back against the blade? Is the balance between filling and dough just right? Does the glaze crack just like you’d expect from a high-sugar doughnut?

Achieving the right look was another sticking point. Doughnut glazes are a major source of sugar, so Fletcher had to supplement his with cornstarch to get that familiar opaque sheen over the dough. Elsewhere in the dough, excess sugar is replaced by chicory root fiber, which also makes his doughnuts surprisingly high in fiber, although he doesn’t make much noise about that. Another lower-calorie doughnut brand, FibreOne, goes all-in on flaunting its high-fiber credentials. On online forums, dieters extoll the—ahem—intestinally freeing side effects of FibreOne’s snacks.

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Fletcher doesn’t see his doughnuts as a food for dieters. Put a health claim on an unbranded cake and sales immediately plummet, he says. Fletcher wants the healthier side of his doughnuts to sneak up on people, not bash them over the head. In small print on the box containing an Urban Legend Belgian Biccie is a note mentioning that the doughnuts don’t have a single red light according to the UK’s traffic light labels. Compared to a similar Krispy Kreme doughnut, the Belgian Biccie has less than half as many calories and only about 22 percent as much fat per 100 grams, although it does have a smidgen more sugar than the Krispy Kreme.

Fletcher has identified three kinds of doughnut customers: people who want their snacks to be slightly better for them, people who couldn’t care less either way, and people who insist that doughnuts should be as rib-stickingly indulgent as possible. When I brought some Urban Legend doughnuts into the WIRED offices, Fletcher’s philosophy was borne out—we split pretty evenly into those three camps. This might explain why other doughnut brands are wary about flying their dough up the low-fat flagpole.

Krispy Kreme, for example, has no plans to release a doughnut that complies with the UK’s new low-fat and low-sugar rules. But other category-busting snacks are starting to appear. Food brands are experimenting with Christmas piespotato chips, and chocolate chip cookies that skirt the new regulations to get in front of shoppers in those prime spaces where other brands can’t compete. Fletcher says he’s steam baking 3,000 doughnuts an hour, and his doughnuts are sold in two of the UK’s biggest supermarkets. Other doughnut brands are also experimenting with low-fat and low-sugar versions, but for now Fletcher’s doughnuts are the only ones that can be sold in the front of stores, on the ends of aisles, or near checkouts.

A Better Beignet?

It’s tempting to look at the UK’s new food rules and see a deal with the devil. We know that ultra-processed foods are bad for us, and yet huge food companies engineer these foods to be irresistible and then bombard us from all angles with marketing. Sure, PepsiCo can launch low-fat and low-sugar Doritos that are technically compliant with the new rules, but are these really the future of snacking, or just a handy end-of-aisle flag to remind shoppers to head into the aisles where they’ll find the real Doritos?

“I don’t see [the food industry] as an ally in this,” says Emma Boyland, chair of food marketing and child health at the University of Liverpool in the UK. But, she says, that same industry makes exactly the kind of food that people are used to and demand. “It’s not possible to suddenly take them all away and say, ‘You can only drink water and consume fruit and veg.’”

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England’s new rules around fat, sugar, and salt walk a delicate line. They’re discouraging the sale of high-fat, high-salt, and high-sugar products, but they’re also offering the food industry an off-ramp that lets it continue to sell unhealthy products as long as they are tweaked. The question is whether the industry—and consumers—like the look of that off-ramp, or whether they’re happy to carry on zooming into an ultra-processed, ultra-unhealthy future.

Boyland was one of many researchers who helped the UK government devise its obesity strategy. The rules on product placement are only one part of wider changes that were supposed to come into place earlier this year. The rules were also supposed to include a ban on junk food advertisements on TV between 5:30 am and 9 pm, when children are more likely to see them, as well as a restriction on online advertising and in-store promotions. But the introduction of these elements has been delayed until at least 2024. “No single policy in isolation is going to have the power to dramatically reduce obesity,” says Boyland, although her research suggests that the advertising ban alone might lead to a 4.6 percent reduction in childhood obesity in the UK.

Maybe we need to recalibrate our taste buds. Western palettes have become inured to energy-dense and ultrasweet diets that are unusual from both a historical and global perspective. “We need to collectively adapt over time,” says Boyland. “We used to survive on foods that were not as intense as they are now.” That might mean getting people to shift to reassuringly indulgent products that are just a little better than the alternative. “Having spent 20 years trying to sell healthy food to consumers, it’s really hard to get people to change,” says Fletcher. “Now that we’ve experienced this kind of food landscape, it’s extremely difficult to row back from it.”

Perhaps the doughnut wars are just a skirmish in a much bigger conflict: nudgers versus pushers. Those who argue we can tweak our way to healthier diets, and others who think that this stands in the way of a much more radical overhaul of our relationship to food. “You can’t make a healthy chocolate bar. It is not going to happen. It can’t really be done,” says Bandy. Cadbury has tried, with its new rule-compliant trail mix, but all this innovation overlooks the systemic flaws in our food systems. Healthy food is too expensive, people are time-poor, and our big supermarkets are dominated by companies that push unhealthy products. Unless consumers and regulators push back on those dynamics, we could be destined to head down the path of ever-unhealthier diets.

In my local Sainsbury’s superstore, the Krispy Kreme stand lurks illicitly at the very back of the store alongside the other baked treats. The air is heavy with the smell of fried, sugared dough. About as far away as you can get, right at the front of the store, I find the Urban Legend display. Directly in the line of sight of anyone entering the store, its closest competitor is a carton of zucchini from the vegetable aisle. While I loiter by the checkouts, a man in a motorcycle helmet approaches the stand. He picks up a box of doughnuts, pauses, then puts it down again.

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