The Sweetener Historian

Regard de Kurt Ehrmann

Regard de Kurt Ehrmann

In olden times, crusaders ransacked a continent looking for the Holy Grail, and alchemists competed to rediscover the Philosophers’ Stone that could turn base metals into gold. In more recent centuries, humankind has labored to find a sweetener that can step in and take the place of sugar. All the substance must do is taste as good as sugar. The other requirement is that it have none of sugar’s less desirable intrinsic qualities, such as weight-boosting calories and or a chemical makeup that wreaks havoc on the human body. We just want an acceptable sugar substitute—is that too much to ask?

Daniel Engberjan wrote, and the New York Times published, a monumental history of science’s attempt to answer this question. A mass of human talent is dedicated to the search for what he calls “the beverage market’s killer app,” which would be a fully natural diet soda with zero calories. Of course, even in that definition there is a wrinkle. One contender’s chief executive reminded the writer that each country decides for itself what is natural, and in America, the food and beverage manufacturers get to make the call.

Previous Attempts at Artificial Sweeteners

In 1951, the Food and Drug Administration approved cyclamate, and no-calorie soda took off like a rocket. Size obsession is not a new trend. More than 60 years ago, housewives and secretaries alike stared eagle-eyed at their mirrors. It is interesting that the popular expression for obesity awareness was “watch your waistline,” and now it turns out that simple waistline measurement may be the most accurate way to assess a dangerous weight condition.

If a company makes a high-potency artificial sweetener, more than half its income will derive from sales to the beverage industry. There are also various forms of sweeteners meant for adding to coffee or tea. Engberjan says,

Sweet’N Low comes from a derivative of coal; Equal is made from methanol and converts to formaldehyde when digested; Splenda is a chlorinated sugar.

The scientists have tried all kinds of alternatives, but artificial sweeteners tend to give people headaches and depression. There is laboratory evidence that users gain weight rather than losing it. In the late 1960s, the product called Cyclamate was banned because lab rats got cancer. Then there was aspartame, adopted by Coca-Cola in the early ’80s. “Nectresse” is made from monk fruit, not appropriate for soda, but with its own specialized market. An extract called molomo is derived from a South African plant, but whatever its virtues it has an extreme, disqualifying liability.

Engberjan visited a research and development chemist named Grant DuBois who left a long career with Coca-Cola to found his own consulting firm, and who admits that “the best natural product that we have is a compromise.” That would be stevia, which since the early ’80s has been expected to save the day, but a slight problem impacts stevia’s ”sweetness quality”— namely, bitterness. Apparently, people don’t notice a weird aftertaste if they consume only a tiny bit, but the amount needed for a bottle or can of soda results in unpleasantness. However much stevia is in a drink, it doesn’t work unless paired with least an equal amount of sugar. Currently, the industry uses it for “midcalorie soda” sold outside the United States.

There is still hope for stevia, whose active chemical is rebaudioside-A, known affectionately as Reb-A. Out of every known natural, no-calorie sweetener (about 100 altogether) DuBois says it is the best. To even hope for acceptance, plants will have to be crossed for generations in order to optimize their glycosides. Also, the farmers who specialize in growing it must be masters of their art, because “the shrub demands enormous care.”

The Rules of the Sweetener Game

Being sweet is not as easy as it sounds. DuBois lays out the 9 nonnegotiable requirements (in addition to being natural, i.e. derived from a living organism). One important factor is how long it takes for the flavor to register and make its impression, and then how soon it makes a decent departure. People are so acclimated to sugar that their bodies notice and rebel against even the tiniest difference in effect. In the moment, a sweetener obeys the law of diminishing returns, which DuBois explained using a set of graphs to illustrate how each substance’s power changes, depending on its concentration in the liquid solution. Engberjan says:

He included curves for six different compounds…Each curve rose steeply, gaining sweetness with every increment in milligrams per liter, then appeared to hit a ceiling, a point at which the sweetness flattened out. Once you reach that threshold concentration, a compound loses its effect: no matter how much more of it you pump into a beverage, you’ll never get a sweeter taste.

But in the long run, there are differences. In the pursuit of the perfect sweetener, one requirement is that the substitute be “without diminishing effect.” In other words, the user doesn’t develop a tolerance for it. This is why sugar addiction so difficult to break. With other substances, the addict eventually reaches a point where too much is never enough. They are forever “chasing the dragon,” but their poison never delivers the old kick. Hard drug addicts may die of overdose, or find tolerance so frustrating that they clean up just to have the experience of becoming hooked all over again.

Sugar isn’t like that. It is the gift that keeps on giving, and to take its place an alternative sweetener would need to be equally tolerance-resistant, with the same eternal freshness. It would also have to be patentable, because no corporation is going to waste a ton of money developing a product over which it can’t exercise a monopoly.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Quest for a Natural Sugar Substitute,”, 01/05/14
Image by thierry ehrmann


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