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How safe are novel sweeteners?

Article-How safe are novel sweeteners?

Elo Life Systems scientist in the lab. Source: Elo Life Systems Elo_Scientist_in_Lab.jpg
Consumer demand for healthy yet indulgent products is the driving force behind sweetener innovation, from monkfruit glycosides produced using plant molecular farming to stevia via precision fermentation. But could these sweeteners have unintended consequences for health?

“Consumers are making our jobs even harder,” said Todd Rands, president and CEO of Elo Life Systems, speaking on a panel at Future Food Tech in San Francisco this month.

“[It] is already a challenging thing to replace sugar and now they also want it [...] to be a source of nutrition and health, even though they are indulging. And, while you’re at it, let’s make it sustainable and better for the planet. The consumer wants it all and that’s the challenge we have to deliver on.”

Elo Life Systems is producing mogroside – the sweet-tasting glycoside found in monk fruit and some other plants – in watermelon, using a technique called plant molecular farming (PMF). PMF uses crops as biofactories to produce molecules of interest that are difficult to synthesise through other means.

Using technology to scale up natural sweeteners

The startup’s calorie-free “monk-fruit inspired sweetener” is 300 times sweeter than sugar and does not have the undesirable aftertaste associated with other sweeteners, according to the company. Stevia, for instance, has a lingering aftertaste with bitter or metallic notes, which has slowed down its uptake to an extent. 

Companies thinking of using stevia should be aware that some segments of the population are more sensitive to bitter-tasting molecules while others may not even perceive the bitterness, said Abigail Storms, global head of specialty sweeteners at Tate & Lyle, also speaking on the panel.

“This adds in an extra lens of complexity and difficulty when it comes to formulation,” she noted. 

Nevertheless, industry is using technology to overcome these obstacles by developing novel sweeteners or novel methods to produce sweeteners found in nature.

“Nature has given us a line of sight to what’s there and we can use technology to find ways to make that much more mainstream [and] accessible, getting to those better-tasting options so that when consumers try again, they are not disappointed by the experience.”

Scaling up to bring costs down

In addition to the challenge of replicating sugar’s functionality, it is challenging for brands to find cost-competitive like-for-like replacements. Sugar is a very cheap and widely available commodity, Rands noted. It can also be produced around the world, in both cold and hot climates, using sugar beets and sugar cane. Scaling up alternative solutions to bring the cost down is therefore crucial.

“There is so much in nature that provides the sweetness we all crave. If we can find ways of producing it, harvesting it, and making it more broadly available, that’s a new evolution,” he said.

“The ability of plant cells to produce some of these more complex ingredients is essential to be able to scale them and have them available for the food system.”

The unintended consequences of sweeteners

Rates of overweight, obesity, and type 2 diabetes are growing globally, prompting governments to mandate reformulation or introduce taxes and restrictions on the sale of unhealthy foods that are high in salt, sugar, and fat. Non-nutritive sweeteners that have a similar taste profile as sugar are therefore a solution for manufacturers. However, the safety of these ingredients – even if they have been greenlighted by food safety authorities – may not be so clear cut.

I’m all for sugar reduction but I’m also concerned about unintended consequences,” Dr Robert Lustig told the panellists. Lustig is professor emeritus of paediatric endocrinology at the University of California; public health campaigner; and author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. He is also the co-founder of the startup Biolumen, which makes cellulose-based fibres that can be added to processed foods to increase satiety.

Giving an example of such unintended consequences, Lustig referred to the 2022 Suez et al study, which evaluated the impacts of non-nutritive sweeteners on 120 individuals and their microbiomes. In the randomised-controlled trial, participants ate either saccharin, sucralose, aspartame, or stevia (or sugar or nothing as a control)  for two weeks in doses lower than the acceptable daily intake.

The researchers found that each sweetener “distinctly altered” stool and oral microbiome and plasma metabolome while saccharin and sucralose “significantly” impaired glycaemic responses.

How to avoid ‘another Olestra’

“So, what should the food industry build into evaluating these sweeteners to make sure we don’t end up with another Olestra?” Lustig asked the panellists.

Famous for being a food industry failure, Olestra is a synthetic fat developed by Proctor & Gamble that the body does not absorb, meaning it has no calories. However, the synthetic fat can cause severe diarrhoea; loose stools, abdominal cramps, flatulence, and other adverse effects. It also reduces the body’s ability to absorb important fat-soluble nutrients such as the carotenoids, alpha and beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) advises consumers to avoid Olestra.

Safety knowledge ‘continues to evolve’

Responding to Lustig, Storms said the food industry was conducting a lot of safety work to ensure novel ingredients were safe and without unintended consequences.

“It doesn’t get the same headlines as some of the negative stories, but we are working to make sure we continue to stay ahead and provide good science for consumers and customers alike who are just as concerned obviously when those types of studies come out,” she said.

Rands suggested that taking a data-driven approach and focusing on natural sources could be key to ensuring ingredient safety.

“Our knowledge continues to evolve over time, and we have to [...] continue to study everything in our food system. From our standpoint, we are focused on things that are natural; that are already in our diets; and we think many of the solutions we need will come from those sources where there have been hundreds of years of experience.”