How Sweet Substitutes Stack Up Against Real Sugar: They're Not as Intense as Expected

First Posted: Sep 06, 2014 08:00 AM EDT

How sweet is a sugar substitute? It may not be much more intense than sugar. While many claim substitutes for sugar tend to be sweeter, a new study may just prove otherwise.

In order to see how sugar substitutes stacked up against real sugar, participants compared the taste of non-nutritive sweeteners, such as aspartame, acesulfameK and RebA, with those of nutritive sweeteners, such as sugar, maple syrup and agave nectar. While the volunteers could perceive the sweetness of non-nutritive sweeteners at lower concentrations than real sugar, the intensity of the sensations was no sweeter than nutritive sugars.

"While you can detect non-nutritive sweeteners at lower levels than sugar, that doesn't really tells us anything about the perceived intensity of that sweetness," said John Hayes, one of the researchers, in a news release. "In terms of receptor biology, the potency of a substance describes the lowest concentration that activates a taste receptor, but this does not predict the intensity, or magnitude, of the response."

This means that the ability to detect non-nutritive sweeteners at low levels is related to their potency, but not their intensity. And while these ingredients are marked as "high-intensity" sweeteners, that's actually misleading.

"Our data confirm other work showing the maximal sweetness of low-cal sweeteners is often much lower than that of table sugar or other natural sweeteners, like maple syrup," said Hayes.

The findings reveal a bit more about how sugar and sugar substitutes stack up. This, in turn, may show a little bit more about what role these sweeteners play in the obesity epidemic.

"We have evolved to like sweetness from before birth, so some people assume so-called 'high intensity' sweetener hijack or over-stimulate our natural drive to consume sweet foods, causing us to overeat," said Hayes. "However, this view assumes that foods we eat today are more intense than those we would have been exposed to evolutionarily, and our data imply this isn't the case."

The findings are published in the International Journal of Obesity.

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