How sweet it is: The next generation of natural, zero-calorie sweeteners

How sweet it is: The next generation of natural, zero-calorie sweeteners

The past decades have seen a sharp rise in obesity, diabetes, and Metabolic syndrome, especially among younger and younger children. Experts and non-experts alike are attributing this trend to the sugar in our diets — refined, added sugars to be precise. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame hit the scene years ago but are villainized as much as sugar due to fears about negative health effects and the increased demand for “clean label” products.

Enter stevia leaf extract, the seemingly perfect solution. It’s natural because it comes from a plant (Stevia rebaudiana), healthy because it has no calories, and economical because it’s hundreds of times sweeter than sugar — a little goes a long way.

But stevia leaf extract isn’t so perfect. The first-generation product, which has been on market for around a decade, hasn’t garnered as much customer acceptance as expected. Why? Sweet though they are, first-generation stevia sweeteners suffer from a bitter, licorice-like aftertaste.

The optimal solution, it seems, would be a pure, natural sweetener that lacks the licorice aftertaste and tastes more like sugar. An impossible challenge? At least one company doesn’t think so.

The ultimate solution: Enzymatic reorganization of steviol glycosides

Boston-based Conagen Inc. — a leader in the bio-manufacture of high-value ingredients for the food, pharmaceutical, and renewable markets industries — has its sights set on natural sweeteners, which CEO Oliver Yu described in 2017as “by far” the biggest short-term opportunity space for biobased products in the U.S. Since then, Conagen has achieved important breakthroughs in the space.

The major components of stevia leaf extract are steviol glycosides. Stevioside is the major component, followed by small to trace amounts of rebaudiosides, which give the extract its sweet taste. The major rebaudioside constituent of stevia leaf extract is Reb A, although several other rebaudiosides are also present in trace amounts. The Conagen team has learned that one trace rebaudioside, called Reb M, can provide the superior taste profile they believe is necessary for a successful, next-generation natural sweetener.

“The distinctive aftertaste that was associated with those first-generation stevia products can no longer be found with the next-generation rebaudiosides like our Reb M,” says Matt Mattozzi, Manager of Scientific Operations at Conagen.

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