April 21, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Is Stevia the Sweetener Of the 21st Century?

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Ever wondered what those ‘pink’ color sweetener sachets you add to coffee are made up of? I had no clue until one day sitting idle at coffee shop (blame my girlfriend!) I randomly tore a sachet and dumped its content onto my tongue. A second later I felt as if my taste buds were experiencing an ambush by an intensely sweet tasting and rapidly diffusing chemical. I was baffled, thinking what did I just consume? Why would someone approve such chemical for use as a sweetener? Am I the only one who finds this chemical taste peculiar? Still waiting for my girlfriend, I started looking for the answers while gulping enough water to relieve my taste buds of the eerie sensation.

To my surprise, I found that the sweetener in the pink sachet (saccharin) was accidentally discovered while conducting experiments on ‘coal tar’ by a German scientist Fahlberg. No wonder, it tastes like a chemical! I was further perplexed realizing that ever since ‘saccharin’ was discovered in 1879, food and beverage industry fell in love with artificial sweeteners considering it to be a healthier alternative instead of unleashing the potential of natural alternatives. The industry believed that these artificial sweeteners would have a positive impact on appetite, energy balance and body weight. Come late 1990s, the same belief was proven wrong! The result was appalling! The ingenuous masses consumed these artificial sweeteners for over hundred years only to realize later that these artificial sweeteners were actually doing no good to our body! Thanks to the growing scientific evidence that questioned the positive influence of artificial sweeteners on human health. Eventually, the public outcry fueled by the ambiguity surrounding the artificial sweeteners forced the food industry to take a long hard look at natural alternatives such as stevia. Following the public demand 21st century has seen an upsurge in the number of products sweetened with stevia in advanced economies. Coca-Cola Life, Pepsi True, Zevia and Tropicana Trop 50 have all been sweetened with stevia and are a common sight today in the grocery aisles.

However, most of the stevia products we see today are actually concoctions of stevia and cane sugar or other sweeteners that help in masking off-flavors as a result of cross-adaptation. Cross-adaptation is a way to confuse your taste buds by having more than one taste stimulant. Here is a quick and dirty test: put a pinch of sugar and salt on your tongue, and try to sense how sweet the sugar is; I bet you will find it less sweet. This is exactly what food and beverage industry has been doing lately to rid stevia of its bitterness. The result is a beverage like “Coca-Cola Life” and “Pepsi True”! A 8-oz. bottle of Coca-Cola Life costs you 60 extra calories due to added sugar, defeating the whole idea of cutting down on calories with a natural sweetener!

Stevia, a plant indigenous to Latin America, is several hundred times sweeter than cane sugar. One wouldn’t be surprised to know that stevia has been grown for use as a local sweetener for several centuries. In fact, growing stevia is also more sustainable than growing cane sugar because the intense sweetness of stevia allows attaining similar sweetness levels in food products by using a fraction of the cane sugar amounts. Stevia requires only a fifth of the land and much less water compared to a sugarcane plant. The end result is a gargantuan 29 percent reduction in carbon footprint. Stevia is natural and it does not cause a spike in blood sugar like artificial sweeteners! But had I tasted a sachet of stevia the other day I would have felt strong bitterness along with the sweet taste. Such is the intensity of bitterness that Coca-Cola ditched stevia as a sweetener for its popular Vitaminwater brand following a backlash from the consumers.

Life’s a circle! I never knew one day I would find myself researching on stevia. In the fall of 2012 while I was visiting Cornell as a research scholar, I received a rather unexpected email from my host advisor with a 50-page book chapter attached. The mail read “stop by my office at 2 p.m.” Eager and excited, I rushed to his office without even bothering to look at the attachment. “Here is your chance to get funding for your master’s thesis research! Come up with a solution to rid stevia of its bitterness!” My eyes sparkled with hope, as I had no other means of funding to continue my education. Without wasting any more time I rushed to Olin Library. For the next three days, after reading over dozens of research articles and the book chapter, I realized nobody had looked into the dark corners that I felt might be really critical in solving the problem. Exuberated following the conception of a brilliant idea, I marched to my advisor with a written proposal that eventually got funded. Soon after getting admission to the program I saw myself juggling between experiments bringing together my knowledge of biochemistry, sensory science and analytical chemistry to solve this wicked problem. I wasn’t sure if I would ever solve the problem and often wondered, “If stevia is ever going to be the sweetener of the 21st century?”

As they say, “A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless turned into a glorious success.” Nearing the completion of my master’s program in the spring of 2015 I along with my professors proved that stevia could be ridden of its bitterness while retaining its natural sweetness. The dream of replacing cane sugar with stevia and ceasing our reliance on unhealthy artificial sweeteners has finally been accomplished. What still remains to be seen is: “Will this invention be successfully commercialized as the sweetener of 21st century?”

Samriddh Mudgal graduated from Cornell in 2015. Responses may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.