Sugar alternatives - Interview with a food scientist about all things sweet

 

The Mixology Talk Podcast, Episode 169

This time on the podcast, Chris is chatting with a real, live, food scientist! Zach Gooding joins us to talk about no-calorie and low-calorie sweeteners; he helps us break down the differences between these high intensity sweeteners and sucrose as well as dispels some common misconceptions about artificial sweeteners, which I was certainly guilty of believing (and I bet some of you were, too).

 

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Want to Skip Ahead?

We have a lot of great information and science-y facts for you, so use these timestamps if you want to skip straight to a certain topic:

  • 1:35– The history of Zach’s entrance into food science
  • 5:35– Relative sweetness and using trained human panels to compare different sweetness levels
  • 8:25– The main categories of sugars and sweeteners
  • 10:15– Sugar alcohols
  • 11:10– Misconceptions about artificial sweeteners (Jump to 13:00 for an explanation of agave.)
  • 14:20– Comparison of high intensity sweeteners to sucrose
  • 16:05– Using artificial sweeteners in a simple syrup and sugar alcohols comparisons
  • 18:20– Combinations of sugars/blending artificial sweeteners
  • 20:22– Interesting and under-explored sweeteners
  • 22:35– Debunking myths about high intensity sweeteners
  • 23:51– Questions from the FB group
  • 23:56– FB group question: Are artificial sweeteners healthier than agave or honey?
  • 25:45– FB group question: Using low cal/no cal sweeteners in homemade liqueurs and fruit syrups and how they affect shelf life
  • 29:50– Using the Brix scale vs. relative sweetness for artificial sweeteners (Jump to 33:20 for further explanation of relative sweetness)

 

Meet Zach Gooding, An Expert on Sweetness

Chris was thrilled when Zach reached out in response to his Reddit post requesting advice on low-cal and no-cal drinks. Zach worked for years with an agricultural processor in Illinois to develop new sweeteners, so he truly is an expert on the science of sweet!

Before I forget, here’s his bio:

Zach Gooding is a native of central Illinois corn country who grew up surrounded by agricultural processing, which drew him towards the food industry for his career. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in food science, and is passionate about communicating science, helping people understand complicated topics and clearing up misinformation. He is a sometimes amateur mixologist, but is still learning to branch out from his standard whiskey ginger.

While I consider myself an expert on sugar tasting (I have a sweet tooth and loads of practice…) Zach kicked off the interview by clarifying that his expertise in sweetness is more than just spending a lot of time in the candy aisle.

“To be on these sensory panels, it’s not just people off the street; they go through months and months of training to even be able to generate data,” Zach explains.

Fair enough!  Let’s dig into the episode to learn a little more about the science of sweetness: from calories to common misconceptions and some great suggestions for working with sugars (real or fake) in your own beverage program.

 

Categories of Sugars

While common consumers tend to think of “artificial” vs. “natural” sugars, food scientists think in terms of functionality when it comes to sweeteners and have determined two broad categories:

  • Caloric carbohydrate sweeteners such as sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, honey, agave syrup, and sugar alcohol
  • Non-caloric, high intensity sweeteners (artificial) including Aspartame, Stevia, Sucralose, and monk fruit

Zach explains that non-caloric sweeteners actually do have the same caloric intake as sugars but are so much sweeter that we use way less of them. So while they aren’t actually calorie-free, we just don’t use enough to see a caloric impact.

 

Misconceptions of Artificial Sweeteners

Is High Fructose Corn Syrup really all that bad?

For me, the most surprising takeaway from Chris’ interview with Zach is his assertion that the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) we’ve all been told to avoid has just gotten a bad rap because of limited research into the health effects of high amounts of fructose. In those studies, lab rats were given higher amounts of fructose than any person would ever consume, and that level of consumption did cause liver issues and high cholesterol, (which is where the fear of HFCS stems from.)

Zach also clarifies that HFCS actually isn’t high in fructose compared to regular sugar. (Regular sugar is about 50% fructose; the HFCS used commonly in drinks is 55%.) It’s called “high fructose” in comparison to the corn syrup element, which is 0% fructose. Personally, I had definitely bought into the idea that “natural” is better, but Zach says that’s not necessarily true; just because it’s “natural” doesn’t mean it has less sugar or fewer calories.

 

OK, What about Agave?

Agave, for instance, might also have 55% fructose (the same as HFCS), but it’s still 80-90% total sugar; if you’re seeking other health benefits from these natural options, the vitamin or fiber offered is only going to be roughly 10%. You’re going to need to consume a LOT of agave to see any benefits from that 10%, (which is probably a bad idea for other reasons!) Jump to minute 13:00 to hear Zach speak in-depth about these elements in agave and palm sugars.

 

Blends of Sweeteners

While some of Zach’s favorite sugar substitutes— like Glycosylated enzyme treated Stevia in Japan and Cyclamate in Canada— are not available in the U.S., American companies try to simulate a natural sugar flavor and texture by blending high intensity sweeteners. Zach explains,

“What I’ve found from a food processing standpoint is that generally the more complicated you make them, sometimes the closer you can get,”

If you find that counterintuitive, I’m with you! But after hearing Zach’s endorsement for Diet Mountain Dew, (made with a blend of Aspartame, Acesulfame potassium (ace K), and Sucralose) I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. It does make sense that mixing artificial sweeteners can create a better, more authentic taste and flavor curve.

If you want to blend sweeteners at home, Zach’s advice is to create a partial reduction and not actually replace your sugar; reduce it by approximately half and then add back a high intensity sweetener until you’ve hit your desired level of sweetness. We recently tried mixing sweeteners and thickeners for our Facebook group with some interesting results, so check that out if you haven’t yet.

 

Tricks & Tips for Using High Intensity Sweeteners

You might use these sweeteners for creating homemade liqueurs, simple syrups, or fruit syrups, but Zach suggests two key thoughts:

  • Artificial sweeteners thicken differently, so you may need to add a thickener. (we worked with Xanthum Gum and found it a little bubbly, so you may need to experiment).
  • In general, artificial sweeteners have a shorter shelf life and have different challenges than alcohol sugars, according to Zach:

“When you’re adding high intensity sweeteners, you don’t have that sugar in there, so if there’s anything else for microorganisms to feed off of, then they can grow more readily. With sugar alcohols, you can get that concentration up, and also sugar alcohols generally aren’t able to be used as food for organisms.”

 

The Brix Scale with Non-Caloric Sweeteners

Common in the world of wine and mixology alike, the Brix scale is often used to measure sweetness. (You may be familiar with it also if you’ve ready David Arnold’s book, Liquid Intelligence. Based on sucrose, the Brix scale doesn’t really translate very well to high intensity sweeteners; because we’re looking at such a small amount of the sweetener, it’s just too hard to measure. (Seriously, we could end up with 1/10 to 1/100 of a Brix degree!)

So this is where we have to revisit the idea of relative sweetness instead of relying on Brix. Jump to minute 33:20 to hear Zach explain how adding more high intensity sweetener will relatively get less sweet due to its diminishing return (I’m no food scientist, so I’ll let him explain this process).

 

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Thanks again Zach!

Thank you again to Zach for showing us not to be afraid of using artificial sweeteners, and taking the time to explain the science behind how they work (especially compared to table sugar AKA sucrose.) The next time I put a jar of relish back on the grocery store shelf because it contains high fructose corn syrup, I’m going to think of Zach’s motto:

“I really am a big proponent of sound food science over marketing and fear, so I encourage people to look at their sources and make sure they are getting reputable sources especially when it comes to sweeteners and health.”

Have questions? We have so many great discussions in our Facebook group, so join us if you haven’t already! You can also contact us with any questions you have for Zach, and we’ll forward them along.

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