If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many low-calorie sweeteners to choose from, it helps to first know a little bit about the history of the caloric sweeteners they can be used to replace. It all begins with our innate preference for a sweet taste. This evolutionary trait is linked to the natural sweetness of breast milk, which must fuel our rapid growth during the first year of life.
The only way our earliest ancestors got to taste something sweet once they were weaned was if they happened to find a plant while foraging with sweet leaves, stem, bark, roots or fruit. Since those parts could also be toxic, the pursuit of something sweet required a fast learning curve. The same can be said for stealing honey from a bee hive to satisfy a sweet tooth! People living in New Guinea over 8,000 years ago are credited with being the first to chew wild sugar cane for its sweet taste. It was later discovered that sweet syrup could be made by boiling the canes, and this turned into a sweet powder when dried. The rest, as they say, is history. The trading of sugar quickly expanded across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe, finally making its way to the New World in 1493 when Christopher Columbus arrived with sugar cane seeds.
SUGAR SUBSTITUTES, THE EARLY YEARS
The growing global demand for sugar in the 20th Century combined with the high cost to produce and transport it motivated food scientists to look for something that could be used in its place. Several compounds were discovered that were many times sweeter than sugar so they weren’t readily accepted as a substitute. It wasn’t until sugar was rationed during both World Wars that sales of these alternative sweeteners took off to satisfy our craving for something sweet when no sugar could be had.
SUGAR SUBSTITUTES, THE MODERN ERA
The unprecedented expansion in food production in the United States following World War II gave us an abundant and affordable food supply that contributed to the first signs of excess weight gain among Americans in the 1950s. This, in turn, helped launch the popular Weight Watchers® program in 1960s and increase the demand for more no- and low-calorie sweeteners by people trying to manage their weight.
The no- and low-calorie sweeteners currently approved for use in U.S. foods and beverages can be found in the table above. Dozens more are in development to help meet the growing desire for alternatives to sugar that have fewer calories and are safe for everyone in the family — and that pretty much sums up why we have low-calorie sweeteners!
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1. Sweet compounds were isolated
2. Approved as a dietary supplement in 1995, then available as a food ingredient in 2008
3. Approved as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS), so does not require FDA approval as a food additive
4. Discovery of the sweet component in the fruit