No sugar needed: Scientists discover healthier, natural sweeteners in citrus

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Too much sugar on a daily basis can eventually result in serious health issues like obesity or Type 2 diabetes. Still, the greater snack industry relies on sugar and enticing people to eat consume plenty of it. Even artificial sweeteners are getting a bad rap for being detrimental to health. Now, however, new research from the University of Florida may finally point to a natural, non-caloric sugar substitute that tastes just as sweet.

Study authors say these findings open up the opportunity for the food industry to start producing healthier foods and beverages with much lower sugar content and fewer calories using natural products, all while maintaining the trademark sweetness shoppers want in their snacks.

Yu Wang, associate professor of food science at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, oversaw this multi-year project. Ultimately, the investigation discovered eight new sweetener or sweetness-enhancing compounds in 11 citrus cultivars. “We were able to identify a natural source for an artificial sweetener, oxime V, that had never been identified from any natural source previously,” says Wang, a faculty member at the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, Florida, in a statement. “This creates expanded opportunities for citrus growers and for breeding cultivars to be selected to obtain high yields of sweetener compounds.”

Less sugar in processed food products is going to benefit everyone, and has been earmarked as a long-term goal of both the healthcare system and food and beverage industry for quite some time. Consumers, of course, want to remain healthy while also enjoying tasty foods and beverages. For instance, shoppers want a sweet-tasting orange juice, but they also don’t want to consume too much sugar. These newly identified sweeteners and sweet-enhancing compounds may finally solve this quandary.

Artificial sweeteners can also be harmful to health

There are plenty of food products on store shelves containing artificial, non-caloric sweeteners such as saccharin, sucralose and aspartame in place of sugar. Those substances can negatively impact flavor, however, usually producing either a bitter or metallic aftertaste. In recent years, shoppers have shown a clear propensity toward naturally-derived sweeteners that more closely resemble the sensory profile of sugar. Yet, many current natural, non-caloric sweeteners still possess some licorice-like and bitter aftertastes. Natural sweeteners derived specifically from fruits, meanwhile, have proven much more difficult to cultivate thus far.

Besides just searching for actual sweeteners in citrus, researchers also looked out for any sweetness enhancers capable of significantly lowering the sugar levels needed to attain the same level of perceived sweetness. As of today, only six synthetic and two natural sweeteners/sweetness enhancers have been created and put in use by the food industry and approved by the FDA. Even these sweeteners come with unwanted side effects; an unpleasant aftertaste and high cost of production.

A total of 11 selections from the UF/IFAS citrus breeding program were identified as having “unique and exceptional flavors.” Those cultivars included UF 914 (a grapefruit hybrid), and the sweet orange varieties EV-2 and OLL-20. Mandarins, such as Sugar Belle, Bingo, 13-51, 18A-4-46, 18A-9-39, 18A-10-38, were also included.

The study is published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

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