A scientific look at sweeteners

A scientific look at sweeteners

Among the four basic tastes of sour, sweet, bitter, and salty, sweetness can be said to be humans’ favorite taste stimulus. People have long consumed sugar to taste sweetness. However, excessive intake of sugar may lead to a series of health problems such as diabetes. As a result, humans invented a series of sweeteners to replace sugar. Not long ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a subsidiary of the World Health Organization, declared aspartame a “possible carcinogen.” At the same time, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization also released an assessment report on the health effects of the artificial sweetener aspartame, believing that as long as the intake is limited to a certain range, it can be consumed with confidence .

One side is “may cause cancer”, the other side is “safe to eat”. How should artificial sweeteners represented by aspartame be viewed scientifically? “So many types of sweeteners have been developed, and there are so many types of processed foods, but from the perspective of nutrition doctors, it is still recommended to eat more natural foods, the less processed the better.” Clinical Clinic at Beijing Tiantan Hospital Affiliated to Capital Medical University Xu Yingxia, deputy chief physician of the Department of Nutrition, said.

Human beings have been pursuing sweetness for a long time

Human beings have been pursuing sweetness for a long time.

“All (or almost all) mammals like sweetness. Milk, including human milk, is sweet, or almost all related to sweetness.” British scholar Westminster said in his book “Sweetness” and Power” reveals the process of sugar from a luxury product to its gradual popularity. At that time, sugarcane plantations spread throughout the colonies, continuously delivering sweetness to all corners of the world, and the sugar industry became one of the pillar industries in the development of modern capitalism.

In the 19th century, the chemical industry flourished, providing new solutions for mankind’s pursuit of sweetness. In 1879, two researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, Lemson and Fachberg, jointly published a paper introducing a chemical called “o-benzoylsulfonimide” The substance and its synthesis method, another name of this substance is – saccharin.

The story behind the discovery of saccharin is very interesting. One day after finishing the experiment, Fachberg went to eat without washing his hands. Suddenly he felt a distinct sweetness in his mouth, so he returned to the laboratory to search, and finally found the remaining sweet substance. Later, he and the laboratory supervisor Lemson collaborated on research and co-published the paper. As a result, the world’s first artificial sweetener was “accidentally” developed.

This inadvertent discovery had a huge impact on the future food industry. The sweetness of saccharin is 300 to 500 times that of sucrose, but its cost is only 1/10 of that. It hardly participates in human metabolism, so it has quickly become popular. At the same time, the research and development of other sweeteners is also gaining momentum. In 1937, cyclamate was invented, with a sweetness of 30 to 50 times that of sucrose; in 1965, aspartame was invented, with a sweetness of about 200 times that of sucrose; in 1967, acesulfame potassium was invented, with a sweetness of about 200 times that of sucrose; in 1976, sucralose was invented, with a sweetness of about 600 times that of sucrose; in 1993, neotame, the world’s sweetest artificial sweetener, was invented, with a sweetness of 7,000 to 13,000 times that of sucrose. Times… Similar to their “ancestor” saccharin, the advent of these artificial sweeteners is, like saccharin, an unexpected gain for scientists.

With the rapid development of chemical technology, natural sweeteners such as xylitol and erythritol have also been extracted from various natural substances by scientists, enriching the family of sweeteners.

After more than 100 years of development, the current number of sweeteners has been considerable, and they are classified in different ways: they can be divided into natural sweeteners and artificial sweeteners according to their sources; they can be divided into low-intensity sweeteners and artificial sweeteners according to their sweetness. High-intensity sweeteners; can be divided into nutritive sweeteners and non-nutritive sweeteners according to nutritional value… Different types of sweeteners have different chemical properties and are suitable for different types of food processing, and when mixed with each other It can also produce a different kind of sweet taste, enriching the stimulation on people’s tongue.

The effects of sweeteners on the human body are unknown

As the crystallization of the chemical industry, artificial sweeteners have been controversial due to “safety” issues since their birth. Take the conclusion that “aspartame may cause cancer” as an example. In recent years, there have been many reports in various studies that have found that aspartame causes leukemia, lymphoma, liver cancer and other diseases. Previously, artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and cyclamate have also been controversial about their healthiness.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified aspartame in Group 2B as “possibly carcinogenic”. In this regard, Chen Junshi, academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and general consultant of the National Food Safety Risk Assessment Center, said in an interview that 2 refers to the second level, which is not the strongest in terms of carcinogenic evidence; B refers to possible carcinogens to humans, so media reports The wording is “possible human carcinogen,” which is accurate.

Chen Junshi suggested: “If you want to discuss whether China allows the continued use of aspartame, you should refer to the report of the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization.” It is reported that after the release of the aforementioned two reports, the National Food Safety Risk Assessment Center It once posted on its official website, “Based on the latest evaluation results of the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization and the consumption situation of Chinese residents, the safety of aspartame can be guaranteed when used in accordance with China’s current standards.”

At present, it may not be known what impact sweeteners have on the human body.

Sweetener intake should be limited in moderation

“Nothing is ever absolutely safe. The so-called safety and unsafety must be related to the dose. It makes no sense to talk about safety apart from the dose.” Chen Junshi said.

Sugar and sweeteners both provide us with sweet taste, but they have different characteristics and recommended daily intake. From the perspective of sugar, Article 5 of the “Eight Guidelines for a Balanced Diet” proposed by the “Dietary Guidelines for Chinese Residents (2022)” is “less salt, less oil, and control sugar and alcohol.” Among them, the intake of added sugar , it is recommended not to exceed 50g per day, and it is best to control it below 25g.

“The current per capita sugar intake in our country is about 10g, which is still far from 25g. But there are some groups of people who need special attention, such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, etc.” Zhong Kai told reporters, “For them “It is best to drink less sugary drinks. For example, 250ml of a bottle of sugary drink with 10% sweetness is enough to contain 25g. If you drink it every day, or even several bottles a day, it will definitely have an impact on your health.”

“As for the sweetener itself, it is almost impossible for you to eat more than its health guidance value. Because many sweeteners are many times sweeter than sucrose, according to the ADI standard, you may have to eat it in a day Most people can’t stand half a pound or a pound of sugar,” Zhong Kai said.

“Aspartame, because it breaks down into phenylalanine after entering the human body, there are a very small number of people with genetic diseases (such as phenylketonuria) who cannot consume it.” Zhong Kai reminded .

Xu Yingxia expressed her opinion from another angle: “I think sugar is better, because after all, it still has some nutrients, just control the amount. Sweeteners are not nutrients. If you are not a person who cannot eat sugar, I recommend sweeteners.” Limit the intake of odorants in moderation.”

“It is recommended that everyone pay more attention to the ingredient list when purchasing food, and have a basic understanding of whether sugar or sweetener is added, how much is added, and whether there are other food additives.” Xu Yingxia suggested, “It is better to eat more If you eat more natural foods and less processed foods, such as foods that are not suitable for pregnant women and children, there may be some potential risks.”

The “Dietary Guidelines for Chinese Residents (2022)” makes recommendations on sugar intake. my country has also set limits for most sweeteners, but there are no regulations for a few sweeteners such as xylitol.

Experts say that whether it is sugar or sweeteners, the intake should be controlled. In the final analysis, it is to limit one’s desire for sweetness.

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