A taste for the sweet stuff: Market for sugar substitutes continues to rise
Artificial sweeteners – including aspartame, acesulfame potassium (ace-k), saccharin, and sucralose – are a type of sugar substitute, many times sweeter than sugar. Cheap and easily available, they have been incorporated into a range of food products and beverages, as well as pharmaceutical products.
Consumers looking to lower their sugar and calorie intake are turning to sweeteners in droves: the global market is estimated at $2.1 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach $2.8bn by 2032, rising at a compound annual growth rate of 3%, according to market research firm Future Market Insights.
Epidemiological studies have shown that sweeteners can be beneficial for people seeking to lose weight and for those who suffer from glucose intolerance or type 2 diabetes. However, other research suggests that conversely, some of these products can lead to weight gain and other negative health outcomes as they stimulate appetite, leading to increased food consumption.
They have been criticised over the years for links to various health risks, although the evidence to support this has been conflicting.
Good for your gut: Sweet substances from nature
Researchers at the American Chemical Society studying sweet substances from natural sources as possible replacements have found a low-calorie mixture that is as sweet as table sugar and feeds “good” gut microbes, they report in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
They examined galacto-oligosaccharides – low-calorie sugars found in mammalian milk – as these have a prebiotic effect that can be a source of energy for beneficial gut microbes; past research shows that complex microbiota are directly involved in the fermentation of galacto-oligosaccharides, namely Bifidobacterium longum, B. bifidum, B. catenulatum, Lactobacillus gasseri, and L. salivarius. However, they are not as sweet as table sugar.
The team then looked at luohan guo, also known as monkfruit. The plant is cultivated for its fruit extract, mogrosides – compounds 200 to 300 times sweeter than sucrose. These extracts can display off-flavours; however, these can be removed with enzymes.
The researchers decided to take advantage of both sources.
They hypothesised that “the synthesis of a new sweetener based on galacto-oligosaccharides and enzymatically modified mogrosides could provide enough prebiotic and sweetness properties to be considered as a promising low-calorie and functional ingredient with a high consumers’ acceptance”.
Novel sweetener increases ‘multiple’ beneficial gut microbes
The team started with lactose and mogroside V (the primary mogroside in luohan guo fruit). When they added β-galactosidase enzymes, they obtained a mixture that contained mostly galacto-oligosaccharides and a small amount of modified mogrosides. A trained sensory panel reported that the new combination had a sweetness similar to sucrose. In test tube experiments, the new sweetener increased the levels of multiple human gut microbes that are beneficial, including Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus bacterial species.
What’s more, increases in bacteria-produced metabolites, such as acetate, propionate, and butyrate, indicated that the mixture may have a prebiotic effect on the gut microbiome.
“In vitro analyses and sweet taste studies suggest that the simultaneous synthesis of modified mogrosides and GOS could exert a prebiotic functionality, which warrants further studies investigating the effects of this novel ingredient under in vivo conditions representing physiologically human-relevant exposure scenarios,” the authors concluded.
It comes after Alex Beckett, a director at Mintel Food and Drink, told Fi Global Insights in August that sweeteners that offer a prebiotic benefit “can thrive”.
He added: “This is especially relevant because we see consumers gravitate towards holistic health, so there could be more opportunities to use gut health as a tool to support overall health.”
Too good to be true? The dark side of sweeteners
However, while artificial sweeteners are considered safe for human consumption, some research has raised concerns. According to a 2021 study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, they can potentially turn healthy bacteria in the gut microbiome into harmful microbes and potentially cause serious health issues such as blood poisoning.
Then, in August, researchers argued in Cell that sugar substitutes “are not inert, and, in fact, some can alter human consumers’ microbiomes in a way that can change their blood sugar levels”.
Meanwhile, a Nature study from 2014 found that consumption of sweeteners “drives the development of glucose intolerance through induction of compositional and functional alterations to the intestinal microbiota”.
A spokesperson for the International Sweeteners Association (ISA), a trade group that represents the interests of the sweetener industry, told Vitafoods Insights:
“In contrast to the hypothesis that low-/no-calorie sweeteners can affect health by alteration of the gut microbiota, based primarily on in vitro experiments and animal studies exposing individual cells and rats, respectively, to extremely high levels of sweeteners, recent reviews of the scientific literature support the assertion that current studies establish no evidence of any adverse effect of low-/no-calorie sweeteners on the gut microbiota at doses relevant to human use.
“This is [in] line with scientific opinions of regulatory authorities worldwide, which have repeatedly confirmed the safety of all approved low-/no-calorie sweeteners, including no adverse effect of low-/no-calorie sweeteners on gut microbiota.”