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Sweeteners: The bitter truth about low-calorie sugar substitutes

Low-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame have become common in all our diets. With concerns over their health impacts, should you turn to new plant-based alternatives to get your sweet hit?

By David Cox

7 November 2023

Sugar-replacing tablets with a spoon on a pink background.; Shutterstock ID 1326637646; purchase_order: -; job: -; client: -; other: -

Shutterstock/Fuss Sergey

IT WAS hard to believe I was eating a lemon. Earlier, I had let a tiny, tasteless tablet linger on my tongue, the dried powder of a fruit from the Synsepalum dulcificum shrub from West Africa known as the miracle berry. When I later bit on a slice of lemon, it was vivid sweetness rather than sourness that filled my mouth.

In Benin, the berry has long been used to sweeten tart foods, thanks to a protein in its pulp that temporarily activates sweet taste receptors in the mouth in the presence of acids. Now it could be destined for global greatness as a key player in our quest to find healthier ways to satisfy our sweet cravings.

We all know that too much sugar is bad for us, driving an epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes. So, instead, many foods and drinks contain alternatives, such as aspartame, stevia and sucralose, to provide supposedly guilt-free sweetness. Increasingly, though, these products have been embroiled in controversy. In May, the World Health Organization (WHO) advised against their use for weight control and averting type 2 diabetes – things that they had previously been thought to help with.

Now we are gaining a clearer idea of exactly how these sweeteners affect our health, and the door has opened to a new wave of plant-derived alternatives. Sweeteners based on the miracle berry, a rare sugar from figs and a new kind of sugar crystal are all vying to take the top spot. Will they provide a healthy way to sate our cravings, or do we need to rethink our relationship with…

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