Artificial Sweeteners: All the Sweetness, None of the Calories

What separates a Coke from Coke Zero? They share similar flavors, yet Coke Zero contains none of the sugar or calories. How is this possible? The answer is artificial sweeteners. By using artificial sweeteners, Coca Cola is able to provide people with the sweet taste they love without any of the sugar. This is good news for those who need to avoid sugar, such as those with diabetes. 

Might your business benefit from the use of artificial sweeteners? In this Union Kitchen Resource Guide, we will find out. We are going to learn more about artificial sweeteners, their history, and science. Equipped with this knowledge, you’ll be able to make an informed decision.

We’ve all likely used artificial sweeteners at some point, yet very few of us actually know what it is. Artificial sweeteners are synthetic ingredients used to sweeten food and beverage products. Thanks to their caloric-free properties, food and beverage companies often turn to artificial sweeteners as a replacement for natural sweeteners when creating diet products. As previously mentioned, this makes artificial sweeteners an attractive alternative for people looking to cut back on their sugar intake. 

Artificial sweeteners are also sometimes known as high-intensity sweeteners. This is due to the fact that they are able to achieve the same level of sweetness as natural sugars at much lower quantities. Artificial sweeteners typically range anywhere from 30 to 8,000 times the sweetness of natural sugar, although some can reach levels of 20,000. This is important knowledge for food producers looking to use these as synthetic alternatives. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that one gram of artificial sweetener is the same as one gram of natural sugar. This would make for a disastrously sweet product!

Some of the most common types of artificial sweeteners are:

  • Aspartame

  • Acesulfame Potassium

  • Advantame

  • Aspartame-Acesulfame Salt

  • Neotame

  • Saccharin

  • Sucralose

Each one of these has unique properties that make it suitable or unsuitable for various products. If you choose to use artificial sweeteners, make sure to carefully review how it impacts the taste and sensory response.

The history of artificial sweeteners is one full of accidents and misunderstandings. In 1879, Baltimore-based researcher Ira Remsen accidentally spilled a coal-tar derivative on his hand. Later that night at dinner, he noticed his hand was unusually sweet. This happy accident would later spur on the development of the first ever artificial sweetener: saccharin. Saccharin would go on to gain significant popularity during the sugar shortages of WW1. Decades later in the 1970s, there were concerns that saccharin could lead to cancer. Studies showing a tie to saccharin and cancer in lab animals led to the FDA removing the artificial sweetener from its GRAS list. GRAS stands for Generally Recognized as Safe and is a list of substances the FDA considers safe for food manufacturers to use. In response, the industry lobbied Congress to pass the Sarrachin Studying and Labeling Act in 1977. This law prevented the FDA from banning sarrachin, but it did require products using the chemical compound to put on a warning label that sarrachin potentially caused cancer in lab animals. This did little to impact sales, though, and the warning labels were removed in 2000. The discovery of saccharin wouldn’t be the last time a lab accident led to something sweet.

During the 1960s, a chemist, who was researching a new ulcer medicine, in a lab licked his finger to grab a piece of paper. Like Ira before him, the chemist was surprised to discover his finger tasted sweet. This new found concoction would go on to become aspartame. Advertised as a saccharin alternative, aspartame became popular in the 1980s.

Finally, sucralose was discovered in London in the mid 1970s thanks to a misunderstanding in a lab. While researching insecticides, a lab assistant was told by his advisor to test a new compound. The assistant misheard this as “taste” the compound. In a lucky turn of events, this didn’t kill him. Instead, the assistant was astounded by the compound’s sweetness. 

The history of artificial sweeteners reveal two things. One, you never know where and when you’ll find something amazing. Two, scientists are alarmingly willing to taste unknown chemical compounds.

The science behind artificial sweeteners is tied directly to human biology. As artificial compounds affect the human brain in a very similar way to natural-occurring sugar, it’s important to first know how natural sugar affects the body. Humans are naturally drawn to sugar. In hunter-gatherer societies, sugar was a rare treat associated with high energy foods like berries and honey. While sugar has become much more readily available in the modern world, it’s effects on the brain have not changed. When sugar hits the tongue, it causes a rush of dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical. Once swallowed, the sugar will go through the digestive system. The body metabolizes it and converts the sugar into energy. People on a sugar high are experiencing high levels of energy from high amounts of sugar.

Artificial sweeteners act in a similar way. When an artificial sweetener hits the tongue,  the same dopamine rush from the sensation of sweetness occurs. From here, though, differences start to pop up. Artificial sweeteners are structured chemically different from sugar (see graphics below). The differences in the chemical structure causes artificial sweeteners to bind to our receptors much more aggressively and causes it to taste much sweeter.

Additionally, because each artificial sweetener has its own molecular shape, they all bind to our taste receptors differently. This gives each of them a distinct taste and aftertaste. For those using artificial sweeteners in their product, this means playing around with various types to find the one with the taste that works best for your particular recipe. 

Should your company use artificial sweeteners? Really, it’s up to you. If you are looking to cut down on your product’s calories or make it diabetic-friendly, artificial sweeteners might be the way to go. Despite their negative portrayal in the media, artificial sweeteners are considered safe by the general scientific community and are FDA approved. 

In this Union Kitchen guide, we discussed artificial sweeteners, their history, and their science.

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