The demand for alternative sweeteners to sugar is increasing at a rate of 8% per year. The market is showing more and more interest in natural sweeteners compared to synthetic ones. This has been reflected in a study carried out by researchers at the Universidad Miguel Hernández (UMH) in Elche, Alicante.
Vicente Micol is the study co-ordinator from the Instituto de Biología Molecular y Celular de la UMH (Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the Miguel Hernández University). He has explained to SINC that the boom in this type of product "is linked to the present concern with what is known as the metabolic syndrome and any related illnesses, such as obesity, insulin-resistance, hypertension or hypercholesterolaemia".
According to the contents of the study, between 20 and 30% of the population from the developed countries have metabolic syndrome. Amongst the people who suffer from this syndrome, various pathologies and risk factors come together, so that these people have a higher risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease or diabetes, characterised by the increase in blood glucose. These patients must cut down on their use of caloric sweeteners such as sugar or honey, and replace them with non-caloric ones.
This research highlights the rise in the market of natural non-caloric sweeteners, particularly those that have a low glycaemic index (GI), and contain polyhydric alcohols. The glycaemic index (GI) is a numerical value that measures the speed at which the levels of glucose rise in the blood once food has been ingested. The new sweeteners such as isomaltulose, tagatose or sucralose, which have a low glycaemic index, help to control these levels. These products are obtained by using plant-derived sugar-containing biomolecules by means of fermentation, using hydrolysis, or by simple chemical modifications.
With regard to polyhydric alcohols such as xylitol or lactitol, not only are they natural but they demonstrate the added advantage of being "excellent anti-caries agents", Micol explained. In the field of functional foods, sweetener ingredients such as stevioside have been on the increase in recent years too, "quite markedly, although they have not yet been approved in Europe", added the biochemist.
Classic sweeteners are under suspicion
According to the study, classic synthetic sweeteners such as saccharin, cyclamate and aspartame still occupy a high percentage of the market, which is due overall to its low price and the difficulty of easily substituting these in many foods. Even so "they are currently reducing their lead in favour of new, natural sweeteners, where health safety is not questioned so much", the researcher commented to SINC.
In recent years, different clinical trials using animals have linked the possible carcinogenic effects of some synthetic sweeteners. For this reason, saccharin has been prohibited for decades in Canada, and the same is true for cyclamate in the USA, and aspartame is contraindicated in some people, such as those who suffer from phenylketonuria. However, Micol clarified to SINC that it "has still not been possible to demonstrate conclusively" the likely toxicity and carcinogenicity of synthetic sweeteners "even after decades of research".