Could scientists be on the verge of crowning a new, near-perfect sweetener? Seems like it, according to research from the American Chemical Society.
First we had white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, brimming with calories and seemingly endless disease-causing potential. Then we drifted toward chemically-manufactured artificial sweeteners, rejoicing in their low- and no-calorie options. But lately, we’ve been in a tug of war of sorts, pulling back from the fake stuff—concluding Splenda is seriously scary (especially for men)—then second-guessing, asking is aspartame really worse than other artificial sweeteners?
Now food scientists are throwing you for an even greater loop with a new alternative that tastes more sugar-like than any other substitute, is 500–2,000 times sweeter than sucrose, yet has practically zero calories (technically it has four calories per gram, which is far more than you’d consume in one sitting), and comes from a fruit protein called brazzein. Sounds almost too good to be true, right?
First of all, you should know that we’re not talking about the same kind of “protein” that builds muscle. Protein that builds muscle is made up of many different polypeptides. Brazzein is a single polypeptide made up of 54 standard amino acids and no carbs, according to Oxford Journals. Because of this, it’s safe for diabetics to consume; it won’t spike blood sugar levels or demand the body to produce insulin like sucrose does.
Also, It’s not really new. Brazzein, the high-intensity sweetener found in the fruit of an African plant named Pentadiplandra brazzeana, started getting attention as a possible sugar substitute years ago. But getting it in large amounts has proved to be troubling, scientists report in ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
Purifying the sweetener from the West African fruit that naturally produces it is pretty costly and arduous on a commercial scale, and efforts to engineer microorganisms to create the protein have only yielded a not-so-sweet version in low quantities. But recently, researchers stumbled upon a new approach: using yeast to churn out brazzein.
Researchers coaxed yeast to overproduce two proteins essential for creating brazzein. It worked. The team was able to produce 2.6 times more brazzein than they had before using the same technique. What’s more, this technique produces brazzein to run on the sweeter end of the taste spectrum; a panel of tasters found the protein to be 2,000 times sweeter than sugar (good, in theory, because you’ll be able to use less).
Aside from logistics, brazzein has been shown to blend well with other natural and artificial sweeteners and withstand high temperatures, making it ideal for commercial use, according to additional research published in Biotechnology in Agriculture and Forestry. It’s not approved by the FDA yet, so there’s no recommended daily intake.