· MAY 24, 2006 ·
Inventing a sweetener with even a little of sugar’s appeal is one of the hardest tasks in food science. It’s less like imitating the taste of Coke or vanilla than like trying to imitate water—another simple but astonishingly versatile compound. Sugar’s sweetness only begins to explain our devotion to it. You can freeze it, cook it, candy it, and caramelize it. It adds bulk to baked goods and helps them to brown. Sugar is a powerful preservative. It triggers the taste buds almost instantly, fades quickly without aftertaste, and has a voluptuous mouthfeel. Even its potency can’t easily be improved. Artificial sweeteners may be thousands of times as sweet by volume, but their flavor loses intensity with repeated tasting. Sugar stays sweet.

Yesterday I read Burkhard Bilger’s article, “The Search for Sweet” from the May 22 issue of The New Yorker. The thing I love about TNY is that I never question whether or not the topic of the article is something I am interested in, because it doesn’t matter; the articles are so well-written and within each article touch on aspects of such a wide range of fields – psychology, biology, history, current events, anthropology, biography, etc.-- that they are always interesting, regardless of topic. So that’s my plug.

Back to the food topic at hand:

The article discusses the discovery of artificial sweeteners (nearly all by accident), and the drive to invent artificial sweeteners that share sugar’s qualities. This has proved to be very difficult. For instance, aspartame, the compound found in NutraSweet, can’t be used in baking, because it breaks down under high heat. After twenty years of research funded by NutraSweet Corporation, which resulted in the discovery of over 2000 new sweeteners, one substance won out: Neotame. Neotame was recently approved by the FDA and started appearing in American supermarkets this year, in products like Ice Breakers candies, and SunnyD Reduced Sugar orange drink. [I love that it can’t be called orange juice.]

The article goes on to talk about taste receptors, and how exactly our taste buds register the five basic flavors: sweet, sour salty, bitter and umami (the taste of protein). Science has long believed that each taste bud registered all of the flavors, but research has recently shown that each taste receptor registers just a single flavor. This discovery has led to the search for not another sweetener, but to a taste amplifier, or “taste potentiator.” The most promising sweet potentiator is still being tested and is known only as Substance 951. “If you add only a few parts per million of it to a soda, you can take out forty per cent of the sugar and the soda will taste as sweet.” Supposedly, it should be on the market by next year, but in such small quantities that it won’t even appear in the ingredients list on products.

The author then suggests that the quest to satisfy the human sweet tooth is akin to “the dream of the paperless office or the superhighway that will untangle traffic for good,” because all presume, “that there is a natural limit to our needs.” Essentially, that our sweet tooth can be satisfied.

Yet our sweet receptors evolved in environments with so little sugar that they may not have a shutoff point. Elizabeth Cashdan, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, has seen African bushmen pick fruit apart for the barest traces of pulp. “And honey! What they will go through for a taste of honey is just incredible,” she says.
A number of biologists have tried to gauge the depth of our appetite for sugar over the years. Newborns, they’ve found, are already fixated on sweetness. If you put some sugar on a latex nipple, an infant will suck it longer and harder than a plain nipple. Give her a drop of sweet water when she’s crying and her heartbeat will slow, her face will relax, and her brain activity will fall into a “hedonically positive” pattern. (Hugs and pacifiers have a similar effect, but not as lasting.) According to the biologist Julia Mennella, at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, sugar seems to trigger the release of opiates in the brain, both bringing pleasure and blocking pain. (When Mennella asked children to stick their hands in icy water, those with some sugar water in their mouths kept their hands in longer.) Adults who are offered drinks of different sugar concentrations tend to reach a “bliss point” at about nine teaspoons per cup—fifty per cent sweeter than the average soft drink. Children prefer eleven teaspoons per cup, and they’ll take it even stronger. “For babies, the fundamental rule is: the sweeter the better,” Monell’s director, Gary Beauchamp, told me. “There is nothing that is too sweet.”

So much of what is good about the article is in the writing, so please take my short synopsis as a poor representation and, if interested, pick it up yourself. Unfortunately it’s not online yet (if it ever will be, TNY is pretty selective about what they put up).


Growing up in my family, pop was a rare treat, probably as much because it was an unnecessary expense as because it wasn’t healthy to drink. I do remember absolutely craving it, and hoping that I would get to have some whenever I went over to a friend’s house to play. On those occasions when I was allowed to drink it, I can recall zeroing in wherever it was kept – the ice chest on a friend’s deck, for instance – and just camping out. As I’ve gotten older, however, sweets and candy have become less and less appealing, and I drink pop about twice a year. Sure I still take sugar (no cream) in my coffee and tea, and I enjoy a piece of cake or a bowl of ice cream as much as anyone. But I don’t have the same need for it that I did as a kid and I can very quickly overload on sweetness; I really dislike frosting, for instance. I’ve never been able to stomach diet Coke, NutraSweet, Splenda, etc., I just don’t like the way they taste, so I’m not personally affected by the potential creation of better artificial sweeteners. However, the idea of this Substance 951 is really intriguing and if it is possible to drastically reduce sugar intake through relatively benign means, I’m not against that. I am wary, though, of the unforeseen consequences of trading something for nothing. And I do believe that there is a cost to everything, especially if it appears that there’s not.

I guess I would most of all advocate for the ‘all things in moderation’ approach toward life, and sugar.

Posted by joanna at 04:24 PM.

YES! welcome joanna! i am so into this.

artificial sweetners have always sort of freaked me out. my uncle would always get really severe headaches when he would drink something that contained nutrasweet. i think it would agitate the brain tumor he ended up having.my mother, however, maintains nearly a constant intake of .

either way, totally gross and kind of scary to me.

- george | May 25, 2006 10:30 AM

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