Natural sugar alternatives are vital in the movement to decrease sugar cane consumption.
The 90s were a time of avid dedication to low-fat diets, so much so that most manufacturers resorted to fat-free ingredients to substitute the carbohydrates in their products. The most prominent of these replacements was sugar. Healthy sugar alternatives were not commonly sought after by consumers at this time, and so began the unhealthy relationship between the U.S. and refined sugar.
Globally, over 170 million metric tons of sugar are produced annually. Between 2015 and 2016, the U.S. was ranked as one of the top producers in the world as they generated around 8.2 million metric tons. The staggering amount is to be expected when so much food in the U.S. is laced with sugar. There are over 56 names for sugar and you'd be hard-pressed to find packaged food without one of them listed as an ingredient.
There’s Too Much Sugar
Unfortunately for consumers in the U.S., it has become standard for food to contain an excess of sugar. Alex McMahon of Onnit notes, health concerns arise as excessive consumption of processed sugar is linked to:
- Metabolic syndrome
- Cardiovascular disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Fatty liver disease
- High blood pressure
Even when faced with the fact that sugar poses such a threat, it can still be hard to cut processed sugars from one’s diet—navigating the withdrawal period can be so tricky that guides have been written to help people through the process. This is due to the fact that consuming sugar triggers the release of dopamine from our brains. The addictive cycle can lead to overstimulation, something that is not hard to accomplish considering that 80 percent of the 600,000 food products in the U.S. have added sugar in them, according to McMahon.
The more sugar we consume, the more tolerant we become to it, and the more we end up needing so we can get the dopamine release we crave. An increased tolerance for sugar is a dangerous path most consumers in the U.S. have fallen victim to, as seen in the amount of people with health complications linked to consuming sugar in excess—such as the one in five people suffering from obesity in the U.S. in 2016, and the 2014 study that showed nearly 10 percent of Americans having been diagnosed with diabetes.
Just as Sweet
As of now, cane sugar is the most prominent source of sweetener, but consumers are looking to change that. A recent wave of healthy eating has lead to the slow shift away from cane sugar. The following is a list of some of the most popular options to use as a sugar alternative:
- Agave Nectar
- Maple Syrup
- Coconut Sugar
- Brown Rice Sugar
Currently, there are companies working to bring better options to help those looking for the best sugar alternatives. Their goal is to embrace consumer demand to source natural ingredients.
The first of these companies is Miraculex, a company that mass produces a miraculin-rich berry—originally from West Africa—to insert the protein’s DNA into the genetic code of lettuce. The process turns ordinary lettuce into a sort of miraculin factory that can then be harvested. The process uses hydroponics, a method of growing plants with water and mineral solutions instead of soil.
The effect of this berry is that its protein tricks taste buds into making sour foods taste sweet. An example of this is its ability to make lemon into lemonade. The company is still waiting for FDA approval but sells its product in stores as a dietary supplement nonetheless.
Another company is MycoTechnology, a biotechnology startup that uses mushrooms as a sugar alternative to block bitter flavoring in food. More specifically, the company uses mycelia, the vegetative strands that create fungal colonies from which mushrooms are produced.
The powder—known as ClearTaste—bonds its molecules with taste receptors on the tongue and block signals to the brain that perceive bitter flavors. It’s also the only bitter blocking product on the market that claims to be universal, a hard feat considering bitterness is known to be a difficult taste to control. Additionally, ClearTaste also promises to reduce sugar use by 50 to 90 percent—a claim that has captured the attention of the entire food industry, wrote Megan Molteni of Wired. The downside to this product is that researchers have yet to determine its effects on the human body once its been consumed.
“It’s very complex and difficult to say what the effect of an antagonist will be. But we do know that blocking won’t have the same effect in different tissues,” said Prashen Chelikani, Director of the Manitoba Chemosensory Biology Research Group. Research continues into the possible effects ClearTaste can have.
This company has developed a sugar alternative in the form of a carrier system that sends sugar molecules directly to sweetness receptors in our taste buds. In doing this, DouxMatok promises to reduce the amount of sugar needed in food by up to 30 percent, according to Jordan Crook of Techcrunch. The product is made with sustainable green chemistry principles that are compliant with EU and FDA regulations.
Sugar Alternatives Abound
All of these sugar alternatives offer a promising solution to consumers who use Stevia—a natural sugar alternative known to have a bitter aftertaste. However, concerns have also risen in response to the concept of blocking bitterness receptors. These receptors are a vital element to a healthy digestive and metabolic system—without it, one could easily lose control of the consumption of food and drinks tinged with bitter flavors, such as certain beers or dark-chocolate.
In any case, the search for the best sugar alternative continues as consumer demand for healthier options is not a trend that appears to be fading away in the foreseeable future.
“Right now, the sugar industry is fighting against artificial sweeteners like Stevia and high-impact sugars. Sugar is considered the enemy and people are looking for ways to replace [it],” said Eran Baniel, CEO of DouxMatok. “It’s not just a trend; that sentiment is here to stay.”