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Medicine

The diet Slurpee discovers the missing ingredient

It's tagatose, the latest low-calorie sweetener without a bitter aftertaste and many potential uses.

September 08, 2003|Jane E. Allen | Times Staff Writer

A new, low-calorie sweetener is making its U.S. debut in a diet frozen cola drink, but it may not be long before you find it in breakfast cereals, brownies, ice cream, candies and energy bars.

The commercial launch of tagatose, which has 92% of the sweetness of table sugar, came with the introduction of 7-Eleven's Diet Pepsi Slurpee. For years the convenience store chain had tried to create a no-calorie version of its popular drink, but those efforts had failed either the taste test or the consistency test.

Combined with two other sugar substitutes, erythritol and sucralose (Splenda), tagatose makes the frozen drink taste more like the sugar-sweetened original. A naturally occurring sugar found in dairy products and sold under the brand name Naturlose, tagatose is made from whey, a byproduct of cheese-making. It's a bulk sweetener like saccharin and Splenda, but those and other artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and must be mixed with fillers. Tagatose spoons and measures just like sugar.

The sweetener withstands the heat of baking, dissolves like regular sugar and remains stable when exposed to air. Because it doesn't raise levels of blood sugar or insulin, it can be used by diabetics. Furthermore, it's a flavor enhancer that reduces bitter aftertastes of other sugar substitutes.

"It offers the potential to be a good-tasting sweetener that can readily be used in recipes, which is a big deal," said Dr. Anne Peters Harmel, a diabetes specialist at USC, noting how difficult it is to cook with sugar substitutes. "This will be easier."

Tagatose was developed and patented by Spherix Inc., a bioengineering firm in Beltsville, Md., which licensed the rights for use in food and beverages to Arla Foods, a Danish dairy producer. Although Arla wasn't required to seek FDA approval to market tagatose in food, the company provided the agency in 2001 "with scientific data supporting their conclusion that tagatose is safe," said Linda Kahl, an FDA consumer safety officer.

Like several other sugar substitutes, tagatose is partly absorbed in the small intestine; some of it breaks down in the large intestine.

As a result, in large amounts, it can cause bloating, gas, nausea and diarrhea. But at the doses most people might consume in a day, tagatose shouldn't cause a big problem, Kahl said.

Other companies have expressed interest in tagatose, including Kellogg's. Last October, the Michigan cereal and snack giant wrote the FDA saying tagatose could be useful in the fight against obesity.

Spherix has sponsored research at the University of Maryland into the potential use of tagatose as a Type 2 diabetes treatment.

Very small studies have shown that taking tagatose regularly lowers levels of glycohemoglobin, an indicator of how well diabetics keep their blood sugar under control.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Compared with sugar

How no-calorie and low-calorie sweeteners compare in sweetness with table sugar (sucrose). Tagatose, for example, is 92% as sweet.

Nutritive sweeteners

(provide some calories)

Xylitol : 100%

Tagatose : 92%

Maltitol : 75%

Mannitol : 70%

Erythritol : 70%

Fructose : 70%

Sorbitol : 60%

Isomalt : 55%

Hydrogenated starch

hydrolysates : 40% to 90%

Lactitol : 35%

Artificial Sweeteners

(provide no calories)

Cyclamate : 30 times sweeter

(banned in the United States)

Aspartame : 180X

(NutraSweet, Equal)

Acesulfame potassium : 200X

(Sunett)

Saccharin: 300X

(Sweet 'N Low)

Sucralose : 600X

(Splenda)

Alitame : 2,000X

(awaiting FDA approval)

Neotame : 8,000X

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Source: Los Angeles Times

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