Satisfying the Sweet Tooth: Chemistry of Sweeteners

By Roy Emmanuel Pineda

Whether it be candy, ice cream, chewing gum, or soda, people these days practically eat everything sweet to satisfy the so-called “sweet tooth”. Due to their high sugar content, sweet foods pack a lot of calories that provide energy to the consumer. However, this is not advantageous to some people, such as diabetics, and people on diet.

Much to the common peoples’ surprise, not all of the sweet things the modern world pack too much calories – it’s because sweeteners are a thing now. Sweeteners have been introduced and industrially produced, some, if not most, of the sweet snacks, beverages, etc. contain artificial sweeteners in place of sugars. Sweeteners are not broken down and absorbed by the body as we do not have the enzymes for the task, and thus they do not raise blood sugar levels and provide a minimal amount of calories to the body.

But how do sweeteners provide the sweet taste like sugars?

Sweetness is usually related to the presence of carbonyl groups (ketones and aldehydes) in substances. These compounds are detected with the G protein coupled receptors (T1R2 + T1R3) coupled with the G protein gustducin, which are located in your taste buds. This means that as long as the carbonyl-rich compounds, like most sweeteners, can be detected by the taste bud receptors, these compounds can still provide the sweet taste despite not being sugars.

Sweeteners are commonly classified into two categories: artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols.

Artificial sweeteners are synthetic as the name suggests, and they contain lower calories than average sugars. Some artificial sweeteners however are much sweeter than regular sugar such that a tiny amount could be equal to large amount of sugar that offers the same level of sweetness. One example is aspartame, the most commonly used sweetener in sugarless sodas.

Sugar alcohols, on the other hand, are carbohydrates naturally produced by some fruits and vegetables. These compounds contain many hydroxyl groups, being the main reason for them to be called sugar alcohols. A common example is xylitol – the sweetener found in some chewing gum brands.

Despite some claims about the bad health effects of these sweeteners, the common sweeteners found in your food are approved by the US FDA.

In order to satisfy the sweet tooth of all –  even diet fanatics and diabetics – man is determined to push through boundaries of sweetener technology!

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