Blog Directory - Blogged foodliterate: February 2008

Sunday, February 24, 2008

What Could Be Sweeter? Part 3

Welcome to part three of the series on FDA approved, high-intensity sweeteners. This week's sweetener is Neotame. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that this may be the first time you've heard of it. It is relatively new and is just finding its way into the products you purchase.

Neotame is a sibling of aspartame; its chemical name is (N-[N-(3,3-dimethylbutyl)-L-α-aspartyl]-L-phenylalanine 1-methyl ester). Whooo - that's a mouthfull. Why-oh-why did I give you the chemical name, which is something you probably can't pronounce, certainly can't remember and definitely will never use? Well, it is because its name "neotame" comes from its chemical structure. That (3,3-dimethylbutyl) is a neohexyl group; three branches of carbon atoms each with three hydrogen atoms (CH3). Like its older brother aspartame, neotame is also comprised of the two amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid. But the 3,3-dimethylbutyl attached to the aspartic acid portion of the molecule makes a big difference in the two sweeteners. The enzymes in your body responsible for the breakdown of peptides (peptidases) can't get past this part of the molecule to pull the two amino acids apart. So unlike aspartame, neotame is safe for PKU sufferers due to the limited availability of the phenylalanine.

Although the amino acids in neotame metabolize differently than aspartame, the methyl ester is still metabolized into methanol. I hope you learned from reading the post about aspartame that the amount of methanol produced from metabolizing tomato and orange juice is about 200 times greater that what you'd get from drinking a beverage containing neotame. The FDA gave the green light to neotame in 2002 for general use as a sweet and flavor enhancer in foods and beverages. It is 8000, yes 8000, times sweeter than sugar. That means it is used in ridiculously small amounts and doesn't contribute any calories. To put this in some perspective, you could replace 4409.25 pounds of sugar with just 0.55 pounds of neotame and get the same level of sweetness. Or to put it another way, a soft drink would normally contain sugar at 9.0-12.0% of the beverage; to keep the same sweetness, you only need 0.0011-0.0017% of neotame.

This product was tested, like all food additives, prior to its approval and was found perfectly safe and did not accumulate in the body even at levels that would equal consuming 50,000 cans of soda every day of your life. (You'd die from the caffeine in that quantity of soda long before you'd need to worry about the neotame!) That study was performed on animals, so for those who would prefer their data on humans no problem - human studies were conducted with a consumption equivalent of six liters of soda consumed every day and still no negative effects were shown. (And I pray that there is no one out there really drinking three 2-liters of soda every day.) More importantly perhaps, is the study done with Type-2 diabetics, which showed that there was no rise in glucose concentrations in their blood plasma, so neotame is a safe sweetener for diabetic use.

So why would product developers decide to use neotame? Well, besides the obvious cost savings due to its really low usage levels, neotame can enhance, modify and mask off-flavors. This means that chewing gum will keep its flavor and sweetness longer and that products enriched with vitamins/minerals and or soy proteins won't taste as funky even if the neotame is used at levels too low to provide sweetness (called sub-sweetening). It is also pretty heat stable so it can be used in baked goods, and is non-cariogenic so it will probably find its way in to candies, gums and lozenges. Right now you can find it in Tang drink mixes, Country Time Lite Lemonade drink mixes and Atkins shakes.

That leaves us two more FDA approved sweeteners still to cover: saccharin and sucralose. You may be surprised that there is more to saccharin than you think you know, so make sure you check back in next week!

Friday, February 15, 2008

What Could Be Sweeter? Part 2

Ahhh, the sweet things in life - and no, I'm not talking about all of those Valentine's Day chocolates you ate yesterday! I'm talking about our discussion of high intensity sweeteners. Today's topic is Aspartame, perhaps the most maligned sweetener ever. And I'm going to put this out here now - if you really do believe all the tales of gloom that surround this sweetener, that's your perogative but I've researched and worked with this product and feel comfortable about its use.

Aspartame, chemically known as aspartylphenylalanine-methyl-ester, was created by accident in a lab in 1965. It is a dipeptide and is comprised of two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine linked together by a methyl-ester bond. It is digested and metabolized as a protein so it does have calories, but since it is 180-200 times sweeter than sugar, it is used in really small quantities so the caloric contribution is minimal. The downside of this product is its lack of heat stability and loss of sweetness over time however, these can be worked around by encapsulating the aspartame.

Now, for the elephant in the room - the safety of this product. The FDA approved aspartame for use in food in 1981 and it has been reaffirmed 26 times in the last 23 years. Over 500 toxicological and clinical studies have confirmed its safety and over 100 countries have approved its use. I will add this caveat - people who have phenylketuronia (the inability to process phenylalanine) cannot consume this product; therefore all products containing aspartame must carry a warning about PKU.

Aspartame is hydrolyzed into 3 metabolites - aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol. The amino acids are simply broken down like every other amino acid we consume, so nothing interesting there. The methanol is broken down by the liver into formaldehyde, then to formic acid, and finally to carbon dioxide. It is this trifecta of methanol, formaldehyde and formic acid that are at the root of all of those websites proclaiming that aspartame is nothing but a poison. And while these ingredients would certainly cause you harm if ingested directly, they really don't pose a problem in the small quantities we are talking about. In fact, they all occur naturally in food or as by-products of food metabolism. As a matter of fact both citrus fruits and tomatoes produce a much higher quantity of methanol as a by-product of their metabolism and no one to my knowledge has dedicated a single internet page to either of those.

Claims have been made that aspartame is causes brain cancer, seizures, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, lupus, and multiple sclerosis. There aren't any studies that have been able to provide coroborating evidence for any of these claims. In fact, not only does the FDA proclaim its safety, but the National Cancer Institute, the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, the National Parkinson's Foundation, the Alzheimer's Association, the Lupus Foundation of America, the EU, Health Canada, and the UK (I could go on, but I won't) all say that aspartame is safe and does not cause these health problems. Here are the results of another study proclaiming aspartam's safety if you care to read it.

The reason aspartame is chosen over other sweeteners is because it intensifies and extends sweetness and fruit flavors. It is often added along with acesulfame potassium because these two products act synergistically, intensifying the overall sweetness and allow for a lower usage of both sweeteners. Also, aspartame does not ilicit an insulin response and so is safe for consumption by diabetics. It is found under the tradenames of Equal and NutraSweet.

Now that I've told you about aspartame, the good, the bad and the not-so-ugly, I hope you have a new understanding of this sweetener. The next post will be on neotame - of the 5, I'm pretty sure this one will be new to you!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Food of the Gods

I know that I said I would continue our discussion about sweeteners, but with Valentine's Day, I just couldn't resist sliding in the topic of chocolate. The scientific name for the tree from which chocolate is derived, Theobroma cacao, translated from Greek, means “food of the gods” and we certainly give chocolate the royal treatment this time of year! So if you will allow me a moment of folly, I would like to share with you the results of a recent study about chocolate.

Most people know someone who can't get enough chocolate; they would describe themselves as needing (not just craving) chocolate, and this new study may just give them the evidence they need to back up that claim. The Nestle Research Center in Switzerland paid for a study (they didn't conduct it themselves) about why some people crave chocolate and others are ambivalent about it. Here's what they found - it has to do with the microbes in your gut. Yep, the bacteria that live in your intestines play a role in whether or not you "need" chocolate. You see, they found that those who crave chocolate and those who are indifferent to it, have different colonies of microbes that inhabit their intestines.

The byproducts of metabolism found in the blood and urine of the test subjects showed a dozen different substances were significantly different between the two groups. The amino acid glycine was higher in those who craved chocolate, while taurine was higher in those who weren't big chocolate fans. And, just in case you needed an excuse for that chocolate binge - the chocolate cravers had lower LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) levels!

What they still need to determine is if the natural bacteria are the cause of the cravings or a product of them (the which came first dilema). They know that the flora of the two groups are different, but they don't know why. But we can now proclaim that we don't just want chocolate, but that we "need" it! And it should help alleviate some of the guilt associated with chocolate cravings that both men and women feel. I'm not giving you carte blanche to eat all the chocolate you want for Valentine's Day, but I am saying that is isn't just all in your head - your body really does "want" it so enjoy the treats and have a very sweet Valentine's Day!! I will go back to our topic of sweeteners, so come back to learn about our next one - Aspartame!

Friday, February 8, 2008

What Could Be Sweeter?

Now that I've laid the foundation for understanding the primary components of food, its time to move into some new territory. At the suggestion of my wonderful fitness instructor, the next topic is sweeteners. Now those of you who have been reading this blog since its inception are probably thinking "didn't she already cover those in her posts on carbs?" Well, yes and no. I did talk about nutrative sweetners like fructose, sucrose and dextrose, but the world of sweetners extends beyond that category.

Sweetners can be nutrative or non-nutrative (which means they do or don't provide calories), high or low intensity (which is their degree of sweetness), and natural or artificial (not as clear as you might be thinking). Sucrose (aka sugar) is the benchmark by which other sweetners are measured; we judge them by how many times sweeter or less sweet they are relative to sucrose. It will take me a few posts to cover this topic, and I promise to leave out the chemistry and just give you the interesting overviews.

Let's start with the FDA approved sweetners. Currently the FDA allows five sweetners for use in food: acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose. Most, if not all of these, have been both praised and villified by proponents and critics. I don't claim to be either and I doubt I will change anyone's mind about their use, but I do hope you keep an open mind and at least read the information I provide. I also hope that it encourages you to want to learn more about these types of ingredients.

Acesulfame potassium is also known as Acesulfame K, Ace K, and Sunette®. It is a non-nutrative, high intensity sweetner developed in Germany in 1967, and was first approved for use in England in 1983. The US took a bit longer to approve its use - the Food & Drug Administration granted approval for its use in soft drinks in 1998 and for its general use in 2003. We don't metabolize (break down) this product, so it leaves us in the same chemical structure as we consume it (I'll trust the experts on this one - I don't want to run this test!) . This also means that it does not elicit a insulin response, great news for diabetics, nor does it cause a "sugar crash". It is heat, acid and alkaline stable which allows it to be used in a wide range of products from beverages to baked goods to tabletop sweetners. Ace K is often mixed with other high intensity sweeteners because it acts synergistically to enhance the sweetening power allowing for a lower usage rate of both sweeteners. This sweetner is used in over 5000 products all over the world.

And although there have been claims about Ace K causing everything from headaches, to weight gain, to hypersensitivity to light, there are no scientific studies from reputable sources to back up the claims. Over 90 studies have been performed and all have been unable to substantiate the claims. Not only the FDA, but the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO), the Commission of the European Union (EU), and the Japanese Department of Health (MHW) have all given their approval to this ingredient. You can even view the Material Safety Data Sheet which is what we in the industry use to judge the safety of the ingredients we use (just remember, this MSDS is for just the acesulfame potassium as a raw ingredient, something I'll play with in my job, but something you will unlikely ever encounter.)

So, that is the first segment on sweeteners - I promise to cover the other approved sweetners on the next post so make sure to come back!