Sugary-tasting sweets commanded $9.7 billion in 2007 sales from all U.S. retail, foodservice and industrial natural, refined or artificial sweeteners, including manufactured and finished products (such as beverages, confections, baked goods and snacks). Robust sales, however, are being linked by many health professionals to a robust increase in waistlines. The USDA reports that available calories from all forms of added sugars increased 17% from 1970-2006, and the country’s sweet tooth has become a prime suspect in factors contributing to two of today’s top health concerns--overweight and diabetes.

A 12oz can of soda or juice typically has 10-12tsps of sugar and 150 or more calories; the popular 20oz bottle size now prevalent on store shelves and in vending machines carries nearly 17tsps of sugar and 250 calories. However, these concentrated packages of calories--especially when habitually swilled in beverages--can easily add up over time and, depending on whether they are drunk with or in between meals and how much is consumed, can cause blood sugar spikes and swings.

Experts from the Harvard School of Public Health Department of Nutrition believe so strongly in evidence that sugary drinks are an important contributor to the epidemic rise of obesity and diabetes, they have encouraged manufacturers, government, schools, worksites and homes to help Americans choose healthier drinks by proposing a new class of reduced-calorie beverages that have no more than 1g of sugar per ounce--about 3tsps per 12oz, 50 calories, or 70% less sugar than a typical soft drink--and free of non-caloric sweeteners. They also want the FDA to require calorie information for the entire bottle--not just for a single serving--on the front of drink labels, aiming to “re-educate the American palate to a lower expectation of sweetness, as well as to give consumers clear information to help them make healthier choices.”

The various forms of sucrose and/or fructose sweeteners generally have 4Kcal/g, tend to digest easily and are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream after eating, though their relative effect on blood sugar depends on their simple 6-carbon sugars make-up. Fructose tends to cause less of an immediate and sharp rise in blood sugar, as compared to glucose. Yet, research from the University of California at Davis revealed evidence that human consumption of fructose-sweetened, but not glucose-sweetened, beverages can adversely affect how the body reacts to sugar, handles fats and controls sugar once in the bloodstream, potentially leading to heart-health risks. (Kimber, L., et al. 2009. J Clin Invest. 119:1322-34.) “Fructose is much more readily metabolized to fat in the liver than glucose is and, in the process, can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which in turn leads to hepatic insulin resistance and type II diabetes,” said Gerald Shulman of Yale University School of Medicine.

Common Dietary Sugar Sources of Glucose and Fructose
Both glucose and fructose are constituents of common sweeteners. For example, table sugar, baking sugar or cane juice are all sucrose, which is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose units. Corn syrup is primarily made of glucose, while high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), in which enzymes convert some of the glucose into fructose, is composed of both glucose and fructose. The National Honey Board’s website (www.honey.com/downloads/carb.pdf) reports that honey averages 38.38% fructose, 30.31% glucose and minor amounts of other sweeteners.

The most common forms of high-fructose corn syrup are HFCS-42, which is 42% fructose and 58% glucose, and HFCS-55, which is 55% fructose and 45% glucose; the latter is generally used in most soft drinks and other sweetened beverages in the U.S. and is comparable to the 50/50 fructose-glucose ratio found in common table sugar. Current public health advocacy, particularly in the media, tends to correlate the rise in HFCS consumption with the increase in diabetes and obesity (though research in this area continues). In the article, “Dietary Fructose and Glucose Differentially Affect Lipid and Glucose Homeostasis,” published in the June 2009 Journal of Nutrition, E.J. Schaefer and colleagues from the Tufts University Department of Agriculture stated, “Sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contain approximately equal amounts of fructose and glucose, and no metabolic differences between them have been noted. Controlled feeding studies at more physiologic dietary intakes of fructose and glucose need to be conducted.” The American Dietetic Association, American Medical Association and Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI) have all also stated that HFCS dietary contributions are no different than other caloric sweeteners.

FDA also settled a labeling controversy last year: as long as HFCS has no contact with synthetic fixing agents during the enzymatic process, the agency does not object to a “natural” claim. However, it is consumer perception that drives demand, and all the fuss over HFCS has ultimately moved some companies and restaurants to return to sugar. Pepsi-Cola, Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper have “no HFCS,” sugar-sweetened-only alternative products, and Snapple is permanently replacing HFCS with sugar in its entire premium line. Starbucks has announced it is removing HFCS from its baked goods, and Jamba Juice is taking it out of their drinks. Concurrently, several regional food co-ops, grocery store chains and restaurants--such as PCC, Cabo Bob’s, New Orleans Pizza, Jason’s Deli and Which Wich--have declared their products and menus HFCS-free.

Americans consumed 44lbs of refined cane and beet sugar per capita last year, and the health concerns over excess consumption continue to create a thriving and significant demand for low- or no-calorie sweeteners. Projected by Packaged Facts to grow to a $3.2 billion market by 2012, alternative sweeteners have proven most profitable in diet soft drinks, tabletop sweeteners, sugarless gum and confectionary retail products.

Naturally Sweet Timing
Findings from The Hartman Group capture the essence of the most recent preferential tendency: “Moving beyond a singular focus on sugar, consumers also express concern that the combination of sugar and/or diet sweeteners, carbonated soda water, artificial colors and flavors, and other artificial ingredients simply cannot prove beneficial to one’s long-term health prospects.” Some notable sweeteners have arrived on the scene with significant presence to meet this contemporary and growing demand.

Stevia, derived from a South American plant, is some 300 times sweeter than sugar (see sidebar “Sweet Taste Profile: Maximal Response”). Formerly limited to dietary supplement products, stevia debuted as a major player in the sweeteners category after FDA did not question manufacturers’ GRAS status conclusions for rebaudioside-A (reb-A) in December 2008. Reb-A, a highly purified form of S. rebaudiana, received no objection to being used as a tabletop and general-purpose sweetener in foods formulated to provide 30mg of reb-A per gram of finished product.

To strengthen the quality and purity of stevia-based sweeteners, the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) has made available new reference standards for rebaudioside-A and stevioside that complement the written testing standard for high-purity reb-A; the updated guidelines are set to be released in the August 31, 2009 edition of the Food Chemicals Codex (FCC). This will help ensure and substantiate the ingredients’ identities, quality, purity, strength and consistency, protecting their products and brands from low-quality, potentially adulterated ingredients.

Erythritol, found naturally in pears, melons, grapes, mushrooms and some fermented foods, is a sugar alcohol with about 70% of the sweetness of table sugar and “net zero” calories. Although it is a carbohydrate, FDA labeling is approved for 0.2K/cal per gram, due to its uniquely rapid absorption and excretion process. This characteristic makes it more compatible with normal healthy digestion, when compared to more commonly used sugar alcohols. Combining it with other low-calorie sweeteners, such as aspartame and acesulfame-K, results in improved finished product flavor profiles.

Agave, another choice gaining momentum, is the syrup or nectar from the Mexican plant with the same name. Although there is no reduction in calories (agave contains the same 16 calories per teaspoon as sugar), it is more intense, so a lower amount can be used to achieve the same sweetness without the disruptive effect on blood sugar. Because it is composed primarily of fructose, however, issues in regards to health benefits are growing along with its popularity.

Brazzein, a small, intensely sweet protein from the African Pentadiplandra brazzeana plant, is highly potent. It is reported to be some 500 times sweeter than a 10% sugar solution and is heat-stable, water-soluble and reportedly reduces aftertaste from other sweeteners, such as aspartame and stevia. It also features a complementary flavor profile closer to sucrose.

Thaumatin is a sweet-flavored protein from a West African fruit that is many times more potent than sugar, but builds slowly and lasts longer. It is also noted to result in a taste more like sugar, when used with sugar alcohols and intense sweeteners; this makes it a good choice for masking bitterness and overcoming off-flavors, and it is water-soluble and heat-stable. [Editor’s note: In the U.S., thaumatin is currently approved only as a flavor enhancer in a range of applications. Similarly, glycyrrhizin and dihydrochalcones, which impart sweetness many times that of sucrose, are also approved in the U.S. only as flavors and/or flavor enhancers.]

A Tax on Taste
A U.S. Senate committee is currently considering new federal taxes on sugary drinks, with intent to channel that revenue into national health care, something already under consideration in some states. The actual tax amount under consideration has not yet been disclosed. More than a dozen states already have taxes on soda and other snack foods.

CSPI believes, “Federal and state governments should levy excise taxes on soda and other sugary drinks both to raise revenues to pay for health coverage and prevention programs, and also to decrease consumption of products that promote obesity,” calculating that, “a new federal excise tax of one penny per 12oz soda could generate more than $1.5 billion dollars per year,” and “a steeper tax of one penny per ounce could raise roughly $16 billion a year, also reducing consumption by 13% overall and perhaps more among children.” The American Public Health Association, the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, Consumers Union, Partnership for Prevention, Shape Up America! and Trust for America’s Health are major organizations among the supporters of CSPI efforts.

With such potential initiatives looming, the pursuit of more naturally derived sweetening options in the competitively thriving sugar-alternatives arena will likely continue, particularly because traditional table sugar also provides more than just sweet taste. Beyond just sprinkling it in beverages or on cereal, sugar imparts volumetric and browning qualities to baked goods, for example, and structural characteristics to candies and confections. Market opportunities for high-intensity blends with bulking properties are ripe for exploring, and all these considerations will undoubtedly result in more product and ingredient introductions to a category currently led by a few major players. These include sucralose, which is produced by chlorinating sugar and is calorie-free; aspartame, which is made from an amino acid peptide and has negligible calories from amounts typically used; saccharin, which is a chemical compound originally made from toluene and is calorie-free; and acesulfame-K, which is a calorie-free potassium salt. [Editor’s note: Others in use in the U.S. include neotame, as well as reduced-calorie sweeteners and bulking agents that add “volume” when sucrose is removed. Polyols, tagatose, trehalose and non-sweet polydextrose are part of this group.]pf  

Lauren Swann, MS, RD, LDN, is a freelance writer and president of Concept Nutrition Inc. (Bensalem, Pa.), which offers consulting services specializing in food labeling, nutrient analyses, marketing communications and cultural dietary practices. She can be reached at 215-639-1203, LS@FoodFactsWork.com or www.FoodFactsWork.com.

Website Resources:
www.FoodMaster.com -- Provides a list of suppliers of various types of sweeteners and bulking agents; scroll to “Browse by product” and click on “ingredient product” then find the “Sweeteners” main category under “S”
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123440831429176023.html -- A short article on new sweeteners for consumers looking for zero-calorie alternatives
www.usp.org/products/referenceStandards -- To obtain information on the stevia reference standards
www.caloriecontrol.org/lowcal.html -- Information on low-calorie sweeteners
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19381015 -- Abstract of University of California, Davis research on fructose and glucose metabolism

Sidebar: How Sweet?
THE NEED FOR INFORMATION TO BE LIMITED TO SMALL “SOUND BITES” (OR “SPACE BITES” IN THE CASE OF PRINT MEDIA) LEADS MEDIA TO SAY A SPECIFIC SWEETENER COMPOUND IS “X-TIMES SWEETER THAN SUGAR.” HOWEVER, THE PERCEIVED SWEETNESS OF A SWEETENING COMPOUND IS IMPACTED BY EXTRINSIC FACTORS BEYOND HOW MUCH OF THE INGREDIENT IS PUT INTO A FOOD OR BEVERAGE. JUST A FEW SUCH CIRCUMSTANCES INCLUDE A PRODUCT’S PH, FLAVORING SYSTEM, OTHER SWEETENERS, VISCOSITY AND OTHER TEXTURAL ATTRIBUTES. ONE STUDY FOUND THAT EVEN THE CHOICE OF HYDROCOLLOID GUMS USED TO PRODUCE GELS WITH THE SAME HARDNESS GREATLY INFLUENCED SWEETNESS PERCEPTION OF SODIUM SUCARYL. (MARSHALL, SG AND VAISEY, M. 1972. J TEXTURE STUD. 3:173-185. PUB ONLINE: 30 JAN 2007.)

WHEN COMPARING THE SWEETNESS OF A COMPOUND TO SUCROSE, THE CONCENTRATION IN SIMPLE WATER MUST BE CONSIDERED. THE CHART SHOWS THAT STEVIA STEVIOL GLYCOSIDE COMPOUND REB-A WAS FOUND TO BE SOME 208 TIMES AS SWEET AS SUCROSE, WHEN COMPARED AT 10% CONCENTRATIONS, INCREASING TO 385 TIMES, WHEN COMPARED IN 2.5% SOLUTIONS.
--CLAUDIA DZIUK O’DONNELL, CHIEF EDITOR

Sidebar: Going Online: Genetics and Sweetness Perception
THE ABILITY TO PERCEIVE CERTAIN BITTER COMPONENTS VARIES AMONG INDIVIDUALS, DUE TO GENETIC DIFFERENCES, AND THIS ALSO MAY RESULT IN A GREATER PREFERENCE FOR SUCROSE (MENNELLA JA, ET AL. 2005. PEDIATRICS. 115:E216-2221). IT IS ALSO KNOWN THAT THE ABILITY TO EXPERIENCE A SWEET TASTE DIFFERS GREATLY AMONG MAMMALS. FOR EXAMPLE, IT IS NON-EXISTENT IN THE HOUSEHOLD CAT2. A RECENT STUDY INDICATES THAT GENETICS ALSO IMPACTS THE ABILITY OF HUMANS TO PERCEIVE SWEETNESS (FUSHAN, AA, ET AL. CURR BIOL. 19:1–6). THE RESEARCHERS REPORT THAT EUROPEAN POPULATIONS HAD THE LOWEST OCCURRENCE OF A CERTAIN GENE, WHICH MEANT THEY HAD AN INCREASED ABILITY TO TASTE SUCROSE, WHEN COMPARED TO POPULATIONS IN OTHER REGIONS STUDIED. THEY CONCLUDED, “WE PROPOSE THAT INHERITED DIFFERENCES IN [A GENE VARIATION] ACCOUNT FOR A SUBSTANTIAL FRACTION OF WORLDWIDE DIFFERENCES IN HUMAN SWEET TASTE PERCEPTION3.”

1 WWW.NCBI.NLM.NIH.GOV/PUBMED/15687429.
2 TYPE, WITH QUOTATION MARKS, “CATS AND SWEETNESS PERCEPTION” IN THE SEARCH FIELD AT WWW.PREPAREDFOODS.COM. SEE BOTTOM OF ARTICLE PAGE.
3 WWW.CELL.COM/CURRENT-BIOLOGY/ABSTRACT/S0960-9822(09)01254-8.
--CLAUDIA DZIUK O’DONNELL, CHIEF EDITOR