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New Sugar Substitutes May Find Way to U.S.

October 24, 1985|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

The hunt for sugar substitutes is taking a turn away from artificial chemicals and toward naturally occurring sweet compounds. A number of these sweeteners are already approved for use in other countries and some may soon be playing a role in this nation's food supply.

Thaumatin, found in the fruit of a West African plant, shows particular promise, according to International Wildlife magazine. This plant-based substance, trademarked as Talin, is 3,000 times sweeter than sugar and has been used by Africans for centuries to sweeten palm wines, teas and sour breads.

Talin is produced from the seeds of the fruit-bearing katemfe plant and was discussed in Western literature for the first time in the 1960s by a U.S. Department of Agriculture biochemist, the magazine reports.

Subsequent research has found that Talin is a viable sweetener for pharmaceutical products, beverages and desserts. However, its use does not extend to products that are to be further baked or broiled. To date, Talin is a successful sugar substitute in Japan, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Australia.

The Calorie Control Council reports that Talin is only one of several naturally occurring sweeteners with promise. Some of the others include stevioside, glycyrrhizin and dihydrochalcones, according to the Atlanta-based food trade association.

Stevioside is 300 times sweeter than sugar and is made from the leaves of a South American plant. The extract is already being used in Japan as a sweetener in soft drinks, chewing gum, fish sauces and pharmaceuticals.

Glycyrrhizin is a non-caloric substance derived from licorice root and is 100 times sweeter than sugar. Although currently approved for use in this country as a flavor and flavor enhancer, glycyrrhizin's pronounced licorice taste limits its applicability at this time.

Dihydrochalcones, or DHC as the substance is known among food technologists, is not in use anywhere because tests on its safety have not been completed. However, research has shown that DHC can be as much as 2,000 times sweeter than sugar. It is non-caloric and is derived from citrus. One form of DHC was found to be a viable sweetener in candies, gum, mouthwash, toothpaste and, not surprisingly, fruit juices.

A Nut Abundance--Preliminary government estimates indicate that this year's California almond harvest may be one of the largest on record. The U.S. Department of Agriculture crop reporting service recently announced that the state's growers are likely to produce about 495 million shelled pounds of nuts by the time the almond harvest culminates later this month.

However, a bumper nut crop does not always translate into significantly lower retail prices. There are a number of reasons for the lag between a drop in wholesale prices and a corresponding decline on supermarket shelves.

For one, many of the almonds will find their way into storage in order to protect the industry in the event of a lean harvest next year. The growers find it necessary to squirrel away nuts because almonds are a cyclical crop, which can fluctuate dramatically from one year to the next.

Furthermore, although wholesale almond prices may be lower than usual, the vagaries of the free market mean the savings will not necessarily be passed on to consumers.

Zinfandel Abroad--Stymied by sluggish U.S. sales, the California wine industry is casting an eager eye on foreign shores. The prime target is Japan, which recently loosened trade restrictions on wine and is now being aggressively courted by this state's wineries.

The result of a more open market has meant that California wine exports to Japan increased by 225%, or 581,000 gallons, in the first six months of 1985, according to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute.

The overtures to Japan have also included media tours of the state's wine-growing regions and a recently completed Japanese TV "docu-drama" on Sonoma County. While the Japanese may become quite fond of Napa Chardonnays and Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, the same is not as readily said about the upcoming TV piece.

According to information released by the Clos du Bois Winery, the plot involves two Japanese tourists who become lost in the wine country. While trying to right themselves, the two travelers are befriended by a Clos du Bois truck driver and are given a first-rate tour of several Sonoma wineries. The days ends, in this fictional encounter, with the two Japanese as the featured guests at a "festive dinner" at the home of the Clos du Bois owners, Frank and Kay Woods.

Of course, the scenario sounds familiar to any Californian who has happened to accidentally stray off the path in Napa and then asked one of the locals for directions.

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