The quest to find the perfect replacement for sugar is looking hopeless

The harsh reality of replacing sugar.
The harsh reality of replacing sugar.
Image: AP Photo/Todd Williamson
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For years, it’s been the Holy Grail for food companies. Yet intrepid scientists haven’t stumbled upon finding a natural replacement for sugar in food. And it doesn’t appear they’re likely to find one anytime soon.

Scientists have already found natural sources for sweetness—the ground-up powder from stevia leaves are actually about 300 times sweeter than table sugar. But they haven’t discovered a single replacement that also mimics sugar’s other properties. That’s because sugar is used not only for sweetness, but also for its functional qualities: It provides structure, texture, and moisture control. And when heat is applied to it in baked goods, the sugar browns to create additional flavor.

The Coca-Cola Company this month announced a $1 million prize to find a natural and safe low- or no-calorie compound that has the same sensation as sugar when mixed into drinks and foods. The natural sweeteners humans have discovered so far all have significant drawbacks. Stevia, for instance, works well in lemon-lime soft drinks but when applied to cola leaves a lingering licorice aftertaste. Others include:

  • Monk fruit has zero calories and doesn’t impact blood sugar levels. But it’s difficult to grow, expensive to import, and can have an unpleasant aftertaste.
  • Monatin comes from the root bark of a spiky plant native to South Africa. It’s far sweeter than sugar, but there are food safety concerns that currently prevent it from going mass market, Fry says.
  • Brazzein is found in an African shrub and has a solid sweetness profile. But it takes about five seconds for its sweetness to kick in, which isn’t ideal for food.

“The sad thing is that the perfect sugar substitute probably doesn’t exist, and decades of research has failed to provide us with one,” says John Fry, a consultant who designs research for sweetener companies to explore the technological and consumer properties of sugar substitutes. ”If such a thing existed, it would be extremely valuable.”

Fry says he expects it will take about a decade for researchers to find an acceptable, comparable substitute for sugar—whether it’s found in nature or developed in a laboratory.

In the meantime, companies will be hunting for the best ways to use what they have—including aspartame, sucralose, and stevia—amid onging pressure to satisfy consumer demand to reduce sugar content and eliminate artificial ingredients. That’s a result of sugar being linked as a “major contributor” to several health problems that plague populations in America, Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere. Those ailments include obesity, Type-2 diabetes, and heart disease.