Forget artificial sweeteners. Researchers are now developing new forms of real sugar, to deliver sweetness with fewer calories. But tricking our biology is no easy feat.
Every workday, at ten o’clock, at noon, and at three in the afternoon, Eran Baniel receives an alert on his phone: the call to taste. When I joined him on a Monday morning in January, in an office park a few miles east of Tel Aviv, he was sitting at a desk with two white china plates of Petit Beurre cookies in front of him. The cookies looked identical, but a label identified the plate on Baniel’s left as 792, and the one on his right as 431. “Petit Beurre is our preferred platform,” Baniel told me, breaking off a corner of a 792 cookie and crunching it thoughtfully. “It’s fast to make and fast to taste.” He sipped some water, took a leftover shard of 431, and invited me to join him as he repeated the process. The second cookie tasted better somehow—a little more buttery, maybe—but that was not what Baniel was assessing. The two sets of cookies had been made with the same recipe, except that one batch contained forty per cent less sugar. The question that Baniel had to answer was: which?
Baniel, a former actor now in his mid-seventies, has expressive eyebrows and a theatrical baritone. In 2014, he became the founding C.E.O. of DouxMatok, an Israeli startup that is now releasing its first product: sugar crystals that have been redesigned to taste sweeter, so that you can put forty per cent fewer of them in a Petit Beurre and it will still taste as sweet as the original. The company has branded its sugar Incredo, a name that gestures toward the disbelief that greets any suggestion that we might be able to have our cake while eating only half the sugar, too.
At the company’s headquarters, every available surface seemed to be laden with Incredo-sweetened treats—cookies, chocolates, gummy bears, jars of cocoa-hazelnut paste. In blind tastings conducted by a consumer-research company, more than two-thirds of a panel of ordinary consumers said they preferred the Incredo Petit Beurres to the full-sugar ones, and seventy-four per cent indicated that they’d rather buy the Incredo version of Nutella than the real thing. It won’t be long before they can: later this year, Incredo will enter commercial production with Südzucker, Europe’s biggest sugar producer, as well as with one of the leading refined-sugar distributors in North America, whose identity, I was told, had to remain undisclosed.
Such secrecy is unsurprising in an industry dominated by multinational corporations all spending large amounts on research and development in pursuit of the same goal: to continue selling countless sweet things in a world that is increasingly wary of sugar. In 2015, the World Health Organization recommended that no more than ten per cent—and, ideally, less than five—of an adult’s daily energy intake should come from sugar. In other words, an average adult, with a daily consumption of two thousand calories, ought to consume no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day—the amount found in a generous schmear of Nutella, and quite a bit less than the contents of a can of Coke. The following year, the Obama Administration announced new rules requiring companies to disclose their products’ added-sugar content on the Nutrition Facts label. Some governments have gone further. Many countries, especially in Europe and South America, have begun placing health-warning labels on, and taxing, products containing more than a teaspoon or two of sugar per three ounces—a category that includes many things that people think of as innocuous, such as breakfast cookies, oatmeal muffins, and nutrition bars.
These measures seem to be having an impact. Recent surveys report that seventy per cent of Americans are concerned about the sugar in their diets, and U.K. shoppers rate sugar content as the most important factor in making healthy food choices. As public opinion turns against sugar, food companies have outdone one another in pledges to cut the quantities of it that appear in their products. Pepsi has promised that by 2025 at least two-thirds of its drinks will contain a hundred calories or fewer from added sweeteners. A consortium of candy companies, including Mars Wrigley, Ferrero, and Russell Stover, recently declared that by 2022 half of their single-serving products will contain at most two hundred calories per pack. Nestlé has resolved to use five per cent less added sugar by the end of this year—though, as of January, it still had more than twenty thousand tons of the stuff left to eliminate.
The problem is that sugar isn’t easy to replace. Despite scientists’ best efforts in the past century, none of the artificial alternatives that have been developed are quite as irresistible, let alone as versatile in the kitchen. The looming impact of new nutrition standards, combined with regulatory pressure and public sentiment, has led to something of a panic in the industry, and a flurry of innovation. The new race—in which DouxMatok is only one of several competitors—is not to develop a substitute for sugar but to design a better sugar altogether.
DouxMatok’s method of restructuring sugar crystals was invented by Baniel’s father, Avraham, an industrial chemist. He patented the technique five years ago, when he was ninety-six; today, at the age of a hundred and one, he has finally retired. At one point during my visit, Eran sifted through a pile of his father’s memorabilia—black-and-white photographs, identification cards, university certificates—to find illustrations for a forthcoming presentation about the company. Many of the photographs were new to Eran, and, as he tried to place them, the outline of his father’s life emerged: a six-year-old Polish boy sent to boarding school in what was then the British Palestine Mandate; a student at the University of Montpellier; a promising young scientist, strikingly handsome, exempted from serving in the British Army’s Palestine Regiment so that he could make bombs in the basement of a paint factory near Haifa.
After the war, Avraham helped found the newly formed State of Israel’s national mining institute. In the following decades, he was granted more than two hundred patents, for processes that ranged from turning wood chips into biofuel to synthesizing a key ingredient in carpet fibres. “The first chemical technology sold abroad by Israel was from my father,” Eran told me—a method for producing potassium nitrate that was licensed to Japanese fertilizer manufacturers in the nineteen-fifties.
Avraham began thinking about sugar in the late nineties, while he was serving as a consultant to a British food company that was launching a new artificial sweetener in the United States. Early sales had been slow, and consumer research seemed to show that children, in particular, remained resolute in preferring real sugar. Avraham was reminded of something he’d noticed back in the nineteen-forties, when sugar was strictly rationed. His neighbor, an elementary-school teacher, had asked him whether, as a chemist, he might be able to get hold of some cornstarch so that she could make a pudding. Her theory was that its thick and sticky texture would coat the tongue, helping her students’ meagre allowance of sugar seem more satisfying.
After helping his neighbor, Avraham made some pudding himself, and found that she was right: up to a point, the more viscous he made it the sweeter it tasted. Sixty years later, he began to wonder whether the best way of reducing sugar was not by replacing it but by reformatting it. Sucrose is delivered to the taste receptors on our tongues by saliva, as sugar crystals dissolve in our mouth, but only about a fifth of the sugar in a typical bite of cookie actually connects with a receptor. The rest of it is washed down into our bellies—calories we consume but never taste. “Statistically, it goes everywhere you don’t want,” Eran told me.
Searching for a way to tickle the sweet receptors more effectively, Avraham tried blending pure sucrose with various carriers. Eventually, he hit on the idea of mixing sugar with tiny grains of silica, a common ingredient in the food industry. (Silica passes through the human digestive system without being metabolized.) Each silica grain is less than a fiftieth the diameter of human hair—invisible to the eye and undetectable on the tongue. DouxMatok’s production process embeds them throughout each sugar crystal, like blueberries in a muffin.
Even though the resulting crystal is ninety-nine per cent sugar, the addition of silica has two outsized effects: the bond between the silica and the sugar comes apart in the mouth, exposing a vastly expanded surface area of sucrose to the liquefying powers of saliva; and the sucrose immediately surrounding each silica grain changes form. The atoms in a sucrose molecule are usually stacked in a well-ordered lattice, but when this structure becomes what scientists call “amorphous,” its atoms frozen in random chaos, it dissolves on the tongue much more quickly. Incredo’s exponentially more soluble structure rapidly saturates your taste buds, delivering an intense hit of sweetness. The best analogy is cotton candy: melting sugar into an amorphous state and spinning it into a tangle of fine strands produces a confection that seems much more cloying than chocolate or soda, despite containing a fraction of the sugar.
Once Avraham had a prototype, he enlisted Eran, who is an entrepreneur rather than a scientist. (He started out in show business, producing theatre collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians, and then moved on to urban lighting projects, including illuminating the walls of the old city of Jerusalem.) They secured patents on the technology, consulted with venture capitalists and major food companies, and, in 2014, founded DouxMatok. The name means “double sweet”—or, at least, it does if you know that matok means “sweet” in Hebrew and that doux, the French for “sweet,” sounds like the Hebrew du, which means “double.”
Until the late eighteenth century, when sugar production started to become mechanized, most people consumed very little of what nutritionists call “free” or “added” sugars—sweeteners other than, say, the lactose naturally present in milk and the fructose naturally present in fruit. In 1800, an average American would have lived and died never having encountered a single manufactured candy, let alone the array of sugar-sweetened yogurts, snacks, sauces, dressings, cereals, and drinks that now line supermarket shelves. Today, that average American ingests more than nineteen teaspoons of added sugar every day. Not only does most of that never come into contact with our taste buds; our sweet receptors are also less effective than those for other tastes. Our tongues can detect bitterness at concentrations as low as a few parts per million, but, for a glass of water to taste sweet, we have to add nearly a teaspoon of sugar.
“That makes sense for what the system was designed for,” Robert Margolskee told me. He is a biologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, where he studies the molecular mechanisms of sweet perception. Humans, he explained, evolved in an environment filled with substances that might make us sick or even kill us, and are therefore highly sensitized to unpleasant tastes that may signal danger. But the sweetest thing that early hominids would have been likely to come across was fruit or, occasionally, honey. So although we are now surrounded by cheap, plentiful sources of sweetness, our sugar receptors are still tuned to the level of a ripe banana. “It would be better if our sweet receptors got more sensitive so we would eat less sugar,” Margolskee said. “But that’s going to take another couple hundred thousand years at least.”
It has taken only a few decades for obesity rates to triple in America. In 1960, when national surveys began, fewer than fourteen per cent of adults were obese; today, that figure is forty per cent. Sugar is not entirely to blame for this increase—annual per-capita consumption of cheese, for example, has increased eightfold in the past century, and physical activity has undoubtedly declined. Still, as early as the nineteen-twenties, this mismatch between our saturated sugarscape and our insensitive sweet receptors led doctors and diet gurus to recommend low-calorie sugar replacements. Saccharin, a coal-tar derivative favored by Theodore Roosevelt, who was diabetic, was first marketed as early as the eighteen-eighties; during the past century, it has been joined by a half-dozen competitors, most notably aspartame, which appeared in the nineteen-eighties. (Donald Rumsfeld was in charge of launching it.)
Many of these so-called “non-nutritive sweeteners” have acquired a questionable reputation—frequently perceived as both tasting bad and being bad for you. In 1951, as diet soft drinks and desserts proliferated, the sweetener sodium cyclamate was banned by the Food and Drug Administration, because it caused bladder cancer in rats. Saccharin was later also banned for many years, after some worrying studies were published in the seventies, although the current consensus is that today’s artificial sweeteners are not carcinogenic at the levels at which they’re consumed.
The issue of taste presents a greater obstacle. Saccharin is sweeter than sugar, and aspartame is almost two hundred times as sweet, but they’re not a precise match for sugar. “Unconsciously, we all know the time profile of sucrose,” Russell Keast, a food scientist at Deakin University, in Australia, told me. “The onset of sweetness, how long the peak intensity lasts, exactly how long the aftertaste lingers.” With Splenda, say, that pattern is different, and not in a way that most people enjoy. Many non-nutritive sweeteners also have metallic or bitter notes, which have to be disguised with other ingredients.
Furthermore, none of sugar’s artificial replacements offer anything close to the same range of functionality. Sucrose reduces ice-crystal formation in ice cream; it adds crispness to baked goods, volume to dough, and a mouth-filling viscosity to drinks; it improves emulsion stability in dressings, reduces grittiness in chocolate, and even increases shelf life. Manufacturers thus use it promiscuously, even in foods—mayonnaise, bread, hot sauce—in which its sweetness is imperceptible to the tongue. By contrast, saccharin gives baked goods a grainy texture, aspartame separates when heated, losing sweetness, and sucralose muffins and cakes fail to inflate. “That promise—you know, here we’ve got this wonderful compound that tells us it’s sweet, yet delivers no calories?” Keast said. “You’d have to say it’s been a gross failure.” Sugar is simply too integral to every aspect of our cuisine for any other molecule to be an adequate substitute.
A century ago, Henry Tate, who introduced the sugar cube to Britain, joined forces with Abram Lyle, who had made a fortune selling golden syrup (a treacly by-product of sugar refining), to found Tate & Lyle. Long a dominant force in the industry, the company eventually got out of the commodity sugar business, and today about a fifth of its profits come from the sweetener Splenda, which it developed in 1976. But, in 2010, around the time that Avraham Baniel began playing with the idea of adulterating sucrose with silica, Tate & Lyle’s scientists also began looking into ways of retooling, rather than replacing, sugar. “It was obvious at the time,” Jim Carr, the head of the company’s sweetening-technology division, told me. “Our customers wanted a natural ingredient to make things more nutritional, take calories down—so let’s see what already exists in nature.”
Sucrose, which is derived from cane or beets, is not the only kind of sugar. As early as the seventeen-nineties, chemists extracted others from various plants. Grapes yielded the first alternative, glucose, which is one of the two building blocks of sucrose, but only three-quarters as sweet. The other is fructose, which is half as sweet again. Through the years, scientists identified dozens of naturally occurring saccharides—all variations on the basic chemical structure of sugar, which is a molecular matrix of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. Some of these other sugars are well known: in addition to lactose and fructose, there’s amylose (from starch) and maltose (from malt). They are also metabolized as sugars in the body, which means that they have the same dietary drawbacks as sucrose.
Many other sugars, however, are extremely rare—found in such unlikely sources as freshwater algae, aphid secretions, mastic, and even on meteorites. Some of these turn out to behave differently in our bodies, which offers the hope that they may be able to deliver sugar’s sweetness without its metabolic payload. Until quite recently, very little was known about these compounds; they were expensive and time-consuming to extract. Rare-sugar research finally came to the forefront after a breakthrough in Japan in 1991, when Ken Izumori, a professor in the agriculture department of Kagawa University, found an enzyme capable of flipping the orientation of three of the carbon atoms in fructose, turning it into a completely different sugar: allulose, which occurs naturally, albeit in minute amounts, in figs and maple syrup. (Izumori had spent twenty years conducting a global microbial survey in search of a suitable enzyme, before discovering it in a species of bacterium in the soil behind the faculty cafeteria.)
Tate & Lyle now sells allulose to the food industry under the brand name Dolcia Prima. When I visited the company’s Global Commercial and Food Innovation Centre, a hundred-thousand-square-foot facility on the outskirts of Chicago, the head of the laboratory there, Michael Wakeley, was using what he called “a sugar-cookie-model system”—or what most people would call baking—to test Dolcia Prima’s performance against various alternatives. “I’m going to switch out a bunch of different sugars and measure the effects on cookie spread, stack height, color, texture, shelf life,” he said. “There’ll be a sensory component, too”—in other words, we’d get to eat the results.
Ranged in front of him were such industry standards as high-fructose corn syrup, glucose, and regular sugar, as well as a couple of rare sugars that have recently become available commercially: trehalose (which is found in a variety of organisms, including shrimp and shiitake mushrooms) and tagatose (trace amounts of which can be found in fruit, dairy products, and cacao). Dolcia Prima allulose looked exactly like ordinary refined cane sugar: a little less sparkly, perhaps, because its crystals are a different shape—rods rather than cubes. On the tongue, it was sweet in exactly the same way as sucrose, rising in intensity and then lingering, but it seemed subdued, almost in the way that flavors are when you have a cold. “That’s because it’s seventy per cent as sweet,” Abigail Storms, the vice-president for sweetener innovation, explained. “But it only has a tenth of the calories.” In fact, Storms explained, early studies seem to show that the body cannot digest allulose at all, and simply excretes it intact, which would make it zero-calorie, though the F.D.A. has ruled that there is not yet sufficient research to conclusively determine its true caloric value. Neither of the two other rare sugars offers such a promising ratio: trehalose yields only half the sweetness while being just as caloric as sugar, and tagatose, though a little sweeter than allulose, produces only a fifty-per-cent reduction of calories compared with sugar.
As Carr showed me around the facility’s sensory-evaluation booths, he handed me a soft caramel candy—sticky, butterscotchy, delicious—made with butter, vanilla, and allulose. Allulose caramelizes, it fluffs, it stabilizes, and it delivers both mouthfeel and crumb structure in baked goods. “It behaves like a sugar because it is one,” Carr said. Yet, despite the fact that this rare sugar behaves almost exactly like sucrose in the kitchen, it remains sufficiently alien to pass through the human intestine without being digested or fermented.
Tate & Lyle’s proprietary method for producing allulose uses corn, which makes it affordable, if not quite as cheap as sugar. Even so, the food industry was initially cautious: allulose still had to be listed as an added sugar on packaging, which was bound to deter consumers. The company spent five years lobbying the F.D.A., presenting independent studies showing that allulose didn’t elevate blood-sugar levels and didn’t cause dental cavities. Last year, the F.D.A. finally agreed that, for the purposes of nutrition labels, allulose wasn’t a sugar. Manufacturers quickly got in touch, wanting to incorporate Dolcia Prima into their products. “The confectionery industry absolutely needs something like allulose to get to the kind of targets that they’ve set themselves,” Storms said. She hopes that it may soon be available to home bakers, too.
Before I left, Storms and Carr had me taste more allulose-laced products: ice cream, cookies, Swedish fish, and a blueberry-cobbler-flavored protein bar that was jaw-achingly sweet. “You don’t have to finish it,” Carr said, as I grimaced. On my way back to the airport, I gave my taxi driver a couple of allulose chocolate truffles that Storms had handed me for the road. He popped one into his mouth with an appreciative “Mmm,” and told me he’d save the other for his girlfriend. “Zero calories?” he said, shaking his head. “Are you sure?” As he pulled into the departures level of O’Hare to drop me off, I saw him reach into the cup holder and unwrap the other truffle.
In 2018, the food giant Nestlé, whose Milkybar line is the most popular brand of white chocolate in the U.K. and Ireland, launched Milkybar Wowsomes. These consisted of a crispy filling surrounded by a shell of either milk chocolate or white chocolate, and they contained thirty per cent less sugar than an equivalent chocolate bar, thanks to what the company called “an aerated, porous sugar.” Nestlé’s restructured sugar operates on much the same principle as DouxMatok’s Incredo. To create a sugar crystal that would dissolve more readily on the tongue, the company’s scientists mixed sucrose with milk and then spray-dried it under pressure. In cross-section under the microscope, each granule resembles Swiss cheese, the air pockets helping to reduce the amount of sucrose delivered per crystal.
But last year, after disappointing sales, Nestlé withdrew Wowsomes. Consumers complained that the interior felt thick and “unmelty.” They also felt that Wowsomes were too expensive. Petra Klassen-Wigger, a nutritionist in Nestlé’s research division, explained that although the product was more costly to produce than one with sugar, “psychologically speaking, people believe that if you’re taking something out it should be less expensive.” She added that Nestlé will likely use the restructured sugar in other products, and that it is also developing a new sugar-reduction technology for release later this year. (The details are secret, but it is based on fermentation.)
Each of the current alternative sugars has advantages and disadvantages. Tate & Lyle’s zero-calorie allulose beats the respective forty- and thirty-per-cent reductions of DouxMatok’s and Nestlé’s products. Allulose can also be used in drinks, whereas the restructured sucrose crystals break down in water. However, if you replace sugar with an equal amount of allulose, you end up using substantially more of it than is currently legal in most foods, thanks to an artifact of the F.D.A.’s approval process. In order to make sure that even someone consuming large portions of several allulose-sweetened products couldn’t exceed the amount proven safe for daily consumption, the F.D.A. took that amount and divided it among several product categories—yogurt, cookies, soft drinks, candy, and so on—with the result that the quantity allowed in any one of these is significantly lower. This means that allulose will almost always be combined with other ingredients: soluble cornstarch, for bulk; perhaps a natural sweetener, such as stevia; and sugar alcohols, such as xylitol and erythritol. Each of these ingredients has its own issues: odd flavors, late or lingering sweetness, a cooling sensation, digestive repercussions.
DouxMatok’s Incredo, being ninety-nine per cent sucrose, is not subject to regulatory constraints, but any food that uses it still requires reformulation. If you remove the fifty-seven teaspoons of sugar in a jar of Nutella and replace them with thirty-five teaspoons of Incredo, the jar will be noticeably under-filled. And although the product would taste sweet enough, everything else would be off. “The mouthfeel, the balance, the color—everything goes,” Baniel said. Similar problems arise with the Petit Beurre cookie. “When you just reduce the sugar with Incredo and leave everything else the same, the salt gets a presence you don’t want it to have,” he said. “And the vanilla, on the other hand, goes hysterical.”
Estella Belfer, a pastry chef who is a judge on the TV show “Bake-Off Israel,” hopes to use Incredo exclusively one day, but, recently, she told me about some of the challenges of cooking with it. “To make chocolate, it’s easy. I just substitute the sugar with a smaller amount. In shortbread cookies, it is an improvement—it makes them crispier,” she said. “But in the cupcakes and the sponge cakes—this is where there is an art to using Incredo sugar.” Sugar is responsible for much of the tender, springy texture of a good cake; Incredo sugar behaves exactly the same way, but there’s a lot less of it, which creates a problem. Belfer told me that she has successfully blended other ingredients, including soluble fibre and plant proteins, to restore the missing bulk and fluffiness—“but it’s not easy.” Baniel has seen so many food manufacturers struggle with Incredo that he refuses to send out samples unless they are accompanied by a member of his staff. “Our sugar needs a nanny,” he said. “It can’t travel by itself.” While I was in Tel Aviv, DouxMatok’s head chef was in England, teaching a well-known retail chain how to bake with Incredo.
As I sampled one of Estella Belfer’s elegant, Incredo-sweetened cookies, I experienced a twinge of anxiety. Biologically, our capacity to taste sweetness exists not just to provide pleasure but also to warn the rest of the body to prepare for a sugar onslaught: at a signal from the taste buds, the pancreas gears up to produce more insulin, and gut hormones are released to help us absorb glucose into the bloodstream. When these processes stop working as they should, the result is diabetes. Surely it couldn’t be wise to repeatedly fool my taste buds into telling my pancreas to panic, only for just half the promised sugar to show up?
When I expressed my biochemical concerns to Robert Margolskee, of the Monell Center, he said that I probably shouldn’t worry. “Yes, your pancreas would be, like, ‘Hey, you guys were getting me all excited for nothing,’ ” he said, but explained that our bodies have a built-in safety system to insure that blood insulin doesn’t spike until high levels of sugar are detected in the bloodstream, rather than just on the tongue. His larger worry is that reduced-calorie sweeteners appear not to provide the sense of fullness and satisfaction that sugar does. There are two types of sweet receptors on our taste buds, and Margolskee’s lab has discovered that one of them responds to molecules that taste sweet only if they also contain calories. This may help explain the otherwise confusing finding that habitual consumers of artificial sweeteners do not usually weigh less than their sugar-consuming peers. “How much impact does that second pathway have on liking, or on other physiological responses?” Margolskee said. “We don’t know those answers yet.”
Recent research has vastly expanded our knowledge of how sweetness is processed in the body, revealing that the conscious sensation of taste is only a small part of a complex nutrient-seeking system. Sucrose and artificial sweeteners, even at concentration levels too low for our taste buds to register, activate different regions of our brain, and varying forms of sugar interact differently with our gut microbes. Most remarkable, we have receptor cells for sweetness not only on our tongues but all over our bodies. Twenty years ago, researchers in Liverpool discovered sweet receptors in the intestine wall, identical to the ones in our mouth, and since then taste receptors have been found elsewhere in the digestive tract, and even in the central nervous system, in skin, in the testes, and in the lungs.
The effects that most of these cells trigger are still unknown, so it’s conceivable that my concern about a mismatch between the sweetness signal on the tongue and subsequent blood-glucose levels isn’t misplaced. Yanina Pepino, a professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois, told me about a surprising discovery during a recent experiment in her lab: participants secreted less insulin in response to a glucose drink if they had so much as tasted Splenda beforehand. Simply swishing an artificially sweetened liquid over the tongue and spitting it out was sufficient to disrupt the body’s mechanisms for regulating blood-sugar levels. “The job of the brain is to be able to predict and try to orchestrate responses to better handle the stress of sugar in your next meal,” Pepino said. “And this research suggests that it does that best when you have a match between the intensity of sweetness and the amount of sugar in that load.”
Pepino believes that sweetness affects metabolism in and of itself, whether or not calories are involved. “Sweetness is a very powerful signal,” she said. “And I think we’re missing the boat by trying to have the same product with the same level of sweetness, and just reducing the calories.” Russell Keast told me something similar. “Anytime we think we’ve got one over on our biology, there will be collateral damage somewhere,” he said. Margolskee is more optimistic. “We are bags of molecules,” he said, and pointed out that we already know how to trick the receptor proteins that respond purely to sweetness using artificial sweeteners; in time, we’ll surely find a way to fool the receptors that sense sweetness-plus-calories. “I think within five years we’ll be able to reduce eighty to ninety per cent of the sugar in a food and still get pretty much the full sugar sensation,” he said. “It’s not an impossible dream.”
People in the food industry talk a lot about “revealed preference.” In surveys, customers tell you that they want healthy choices, but analysis of purchasing patterns reveals a different hierarchy of priorities: customers care about taste above all else, and value for money to a certain extent; any other claim that a product touts, be it health benefit or environmental impact, lies far behind. “If you get taste and value right, people will go for health every day of the week,” Nick Hampton, Tate & Lyle’s C.E.O., told me. “If you can’t get those two things right, forget it.”
Having recently tasted so many products formulated with unusual sweeteners, I’d somewhat lost sight of my own preferences, and so, in January, when I had friends over for dinner, I treated them to samples of the exotic confectionery I’d accumulated. There were allulose caramels, a mini-jar of Incredo Nutella, a Japanese limited-edition reduced-sugar KitKat sweetened with pulp left over from processing cacao, and even one of the ill-fated Wowsomes, which I’d tracked down at an online store that supplies British expats in North America with nostalgic junk food. I quickly found myself apologizing for the offerings. Comments such as “Is this off?,” “Like cardboard,” and “Why is it so acrid?” characterized the tenor of the response. There were a couple of winners, though: the Wowsomes (“I guess I don’t mind this?”) and the allulose caramels (“This is a multimillion-dollar product!”).
As I cleared away the uneaten treats, I thought about all the money and the scientific ingenuity that had gone into creating them, and I started to wonder: Couldn’t we just eat less sugar? The biological triggers that researchers like Margolskee study seem inexorable, but they weren’t such a problem before sugar became cheap and ubiquitous. Catering to our revealed preference, manufacturers have amplified it: today, three-quarters of all packaged foods contain added sugar, and, if we continue on our current trajectory, half of the world’s population will be overweight or obese within fifteen years, and an estimated one in every six Americans will be diabetic.
Hampton mentioned that, before he came to Tate & Lyle, he worked at PepsiCo, where he managed to cut salt levels in British potato chips by half during a five-year period, without anyone noticing. “Can you do it with sugar as well? That’d be interesting,” he said. In the past few years, several companies have successfully reduced sugar in breakfast cereals without affecting sales, but Margolskee and his colleagues have found evidence that lowering our satisfaction threshold for sweetness may not be quite as easy as adjusting our salt preferences. Assuming it is possible, achieving meaningful sugar reduction would require industrywide compliance on a scale never before attempted. Nonetheless, even the scientists redesigning sugar admit that the ultimate goal is to gradually lower sugar levels and retrain our palates—and that their innovations represent a sophisticated, but ultimately short-term, fix. Just as the only good substitute for sugar is sugar, the only good way to eat less of it, sadly, is to eat less of it
All Rights Reserved for Nicola Twilley