Last week’s Wall Street Journal featured a special section on “The Future of Food” and the cover story by Annie Gasparro was on “The Search for Sweet”—how food manufacturers are racing to identify or develop new ingredients that can be used to sweeten foods and beverages without adding calories or worrisome chemicals.
The American consumer, you see, has decided that sugar is bad for them. This is hardly surprising, given the steady drumbeat of public health messaging about the evils of sweetened beverages and added sugars. A recent Nielsen poll finds that 22% of Americans are trying to reduce their sugar intake. At the same time, more than half are also trying to avoid artificial sweeteners like Equal (aspartame) and Splenda (sucralose).
Natural low-calorie sweeteners like monkfruit, stevia, and sugar alcohols are more appealing to consumers—but these have limitations as well. Stevia can have a bitter aftertaste. Sugar alcohols can have a weird mouthfeel. Replacing sugar with any of these high-intensity, non-caloric sweeteners can affect the texture, moisture, and volume of processed foods and even shorten their shelf-life.
Searching for a Sweeter Sweetener
These challenges are driving a global search for solutions by the food manufacturing industry. They’re feverishly trying to figure out how to offset the off flavors, compensate for the effects on texture and volume, and even alter the shape of molecules in foods in order to trick the taste buds into thinking that something tastes sweeter than it actually does.
“It’s very difficult, very complex,” says Olivier Roger, a food scientist who works for Nestle and is quoted in Gasparro’s article. “We still don’t have the magic solution that would replace sugar.”
I can understand why the food companies are working so hard to solve this problem. The vast majority of manufactured juices, drinks, snack bars, yogurts, cereals, and condiments contain added sugar. These products generate upwards of 50 billion dollars a year. But now a growing number of consumers are looking for lower-sugar versions of these foods. Not providing them could hurt sales.
I can understand why consumers want this magic solution, too. Sugar tastes good! We’re biologically programmed to love it. But we don’t want to gain weight or develop diabetes or cancer. We put men on the moon, for crying out loud. Surely, in this era of driverless cars and drone-delivered groceries, it should be possible to find a way to have our cake and eat it too.
Actually, I don’t think it is.
Even if we could somehow invent or discover something that offered all the sweetness with none of the downsides, I don’t think it would be a positive development for our nutrition or health. Here’s why.
Less Sugar Doesn’t Mean More Nutrition
A lot of the foods that we sweeten, such as beverages, snacks, candy and desserts, are foods that don’t add much nutrition to our diets. Finding a magical solution that would add sweetness without adding calories or affecting blood sugar might make those foods less damaging. But it wouldn’t make them more nutritious. Instead of consuming 200 empty calories, maybe you’d only be consuming 50 empty calories—but you still wouldn’t have much to show for it.
You’d be so much better off eating 50 calories worth of fresh fruit or vegetables or some other nutritious food. And if we weren’t constantly bathing our taste buds in sugar and artificial sweeteners, those nutritious foods would taste a whole lot better to us.
Sugar Deadens the Palate
When we eat a lot of sweetened foods, it decreases our ability to enjoy the subtler flavors of unsweetened foods like fruits, vegetables, and other healthy options. This is something I hear over and over again from people that I work with in group coaching programs.
When they cut back on their consumption of sweetened foods, they almost invariably report a new appreciation for how great something as simple as a really good apple can taste. They are shocked to realize how much flavor and natural sweetness raw red peppers or roasted root vegetables contain. Many never enjoyed eating vegetables because they literally couldn’t taste them until they gave their taste buds a break from all the sugar. This is especially true for people who use a lot of artificial sweeteners.
This is why I think we should stop searching for the perfect sweetener—the one that lets us eat as much sweet stuff as we want without worrying about the consequences. In terms of your health and nutrition, the perfect sweetener is one that you enjoy in moderation. As long as you’re eating them in limited amounts, the sweeteners we’ve already got are actually just fine. And for tips on how much is too much, check out my episode on how to reduce added sugars.
In terms of your health and nutrition, the perfect sweetener is one that you enjoy in moderation.
Limiting your consumption of sweetened foods and beverages leaves more room for foods that actually nourish us. And the great thing is that cutting down on sweetened and artificially sweetened foods makes those nourishing foods taste so much better.
Have you reduced your intake of sugar or artificial sweeteners? How has this affected the rest of your diet? Are you enjoying food more or less? Post your experiences below.