Scientists identify low calorie sweetener that improves gut health

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Scientists identify new sweetener combination that has potential to boost gut health / Pic: GettyImages
Scientists identify new sweetener combination that has potential to boost gut health / Pic: GettyImages

Related tags Sweeteners Gut health microbiome

In search for a ‘better sweetener’, researchers have identified a low-calorie mixture that they claim is as sweet as table sugar and also good for your gut microbiome.

Strong global sales of sweetened food and beverages demonstrate high demand, despite widespread awareness of negative health consequences of overconsumption.

High sugar intake has been linked to growing rates of non-communicable diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes. Public health messaging and regulatory pressure have prompted significant efforts to reformulate products, replacing sugar with low-calorie sweeteners.

If the sweeteners selected are artificial, there can be some drawbacks associated with this approach, the authors of a new study published in American Chemical Society’s ‘Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry’​ suggest.

“Artificial sweeteners have exploded in popularity because they let people consume sweets without the calories. However, while they’re considered safe for human consumption, studies in animals and humans suggest that some of them can stimulate appetite, leading to increased food consumption and weight gain, as well as other negative health outcomes.”

Artificial sweeteners have also been linked to changes in your microbiome, the beneficial microbes that live inside your gut.

The team of researchers - who were funding by UK-based Optibiotix Health, the Spanish government and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program – set out to study low calorie or extremely sweet substances from natural sources to identify possible replacements.

Galactooligosaccharides – found in mammalian milk – are low-calorie sugars with prebiotic activity that can be a source of energy for beneficial gut microbes, but they’re not quite sweet enough to replace table sugar. Alternatively, extracts from the luo han guo fruit contain mogrosides – compounds 200 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar. But these extracts sometimes have off-flavours, which can be removed with enzymes. Lead researcher F. Javier Moreno and colleagues wanted to take advantage of the ‘best aspects’ of both natural substances, using enzymes to modify mogrosides while simultaneously producing galactooligosaccharides for a brand-new low-calorie sweetener.

The researchers started with lactose and mogroside V (the primary mogroside in luo han guo fruit). When they added β-galactosidase enzymes, the researchers obtained a mixture that contained mostly galactooligosaccharides and a small amount of modified mogrosides.

Passing the taste test and boosting microbiome health

When put before a trained sensory panel, it was reported that the new combination had a sweetness similar to that of sucrose. This result, the researchers believe, suggests the combination could be acceptable to consumers.

Interestingly, in lab tests, the study also revealed that the combination of sweeteners could potentially improve the community of ‘good’ bacteria in the intestine. In test tube experiments, the new sweetener increased the levels of multiple human gut microbes that are beneficial, including Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus bacterial species.

Increases in bacteria-produced metabolites, such as acetate, propionate and butyrate, indicated that the mixture could potentially have a prebiotic effect on the gut microbiome, the study claimed.

To see if the new sweetener can deliver against this early promise, the researchers said the next step is to study the substance’s impact on human gut health more closely.

‘Prebiotic Potential of a New Sweetener Based on Galactooligosaccharides and Modified Mogrosides’
Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry
DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.2c01363

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