Stop Searching for the Perfect Sweetener
22% of Americans are trying to reduce their sugar intake and more than half are trying to avoid artificial sweeteners like Equal and Splenda. What's the upshot?
Last week’s Wall Street Journal featured a special section on “The Future of Food” and the cover story by Annie Gasparro was on “The Search for Sweet”—how food manufacturers are racing to identify or develop new ingredients that can be used to sweeten foods and beverages without adding calories or worrisome chemicals.
The American consumer, you see, has decided that sugar is bad for them. This is hardly surprising, given the steady drumbeat of public health messaging about the evils of sweetened beverages and added sugars. A recent Nielsen poll finds that 22% of Americans are trying to reduce their sugar intake. At the same time, more than half are also trying to avoid artificial sweeteners like Equal (aspartame) and Splenda (sucralose).
Natural low-calorie sweeteners like monkfruit, stevia, and sugar alcohols are more appealing to consumers—but these have limitations as well. Stevia can have a bitter aftertaste. Sugar alcohols can have a weird mouthfeel. Replacing sugar with any of these high-intensity, non-caloric sweeteners can affect the texture, moisture, and volume of processed foods and even shorten their shelf-life.
Searching for a Sweeter Sweetener
These challenges are driving a global search for solutions by the food manufacturing industry. They’re feverishly trying to figure out how to offset the off flavors, compensate for the effects on texture and volume, and even alter the shape of molecules in foods in order to trick the taste buds into thinking that something tastes sweeter than it actually does.
“It’s very difficult, very complex,” says Olivier Roger, a food scientist who works for Nestle and is quoted in Gasparro’s article. “We still don’t have the magic solution that would replace sugar.”
I can understand why the food companies are working so hard to solve this problem. The vast majority of manufactured juices, drinks, snack bars, yogurts, cereals, and condiments contain added sugar. These products generate upwards of 50 billion dollars a year. But now a growing number of consumers are looking for lower-sugar versions of these foods. Not providing them could hurt sales.
I can understand why consumers want this magic solution, too. Sugar tastes good! We’re biologically programmed to love it. But we don’t want to gain weight or develop diabetes or cancer. We put men on the moon, for crying out loud. Surely, in this era of driverless cars and drone-delivered groceries, it should be possible to find a way to have our cake and eat it too.
Actually, I don’t think it is.