Your lips, my dear, are as sweet as acesulfame potassium

The notion of satisfying a sweet tooth, but without using sugar, has been the promised land of the beverage industry for at least a half century now.

Although artificial sweetener can be found in a variety of products such as cookies, where you’d expect it, and toothpaste, where you wouldn’t, soda remains the most visible theater of operations. That’s not exactly a trivial concept on Saipan, where health issues, some related to sugar ingestion, aren’t entirely unknown.

This comes to mind because sweeteners are, once again, in the news. A July 13 BBC report asks, “Could artificial sweeteners make people more hungry?”

That’s a line of inquiry, apparently. It remains a gray issue. That’s because the study cited in the BBC report had performed its experiments on mice and fruit flies. Having established that something’s going on with these critters, researchers will presumably start seeing if the same factor applies to humans.

I don’t know what you feed your fruit flies. Me, I’m pretty careful what I dole out to mine lest the little fellers get too heavy to fly. My faith in science is restored now that I know scientists are also comparing recipes on this note.

Speaking of the white coat crew, I know many doctors and dentists who drink diet soda. If you’re looking for a vote of confidence, there you go, well, at least in western circles, where practitioners are long habituated to the use of modern chemicals.

On the other hand, an eastern-trained (traditional Chinese) doctor I sometimes have lunch with won’t touch any soda of any formulation.

You’re familiar with Diet Coke. Long before it hit the scene, Coke’s flagship sugar-free soda was called “TaB.” It was a big deal in the ’60s and ’70s, something of a modern miracle drink. The sweetening agent was something called “cyclamate.” Cyclamate hit the headlines when lab rats fed the stuff seemed to suffer ill effects. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned it (cyclamate, not rats) in 1969. In much of the world it is not banned and is widely used.

After the cyclamate scare, I remember a chemical called “saccharine” becoming the big thing. It was actually a pretty old concoction, but the time was ripe for its popularity to soar. Everybody heaved a sigh of relief that they weren’t drinking that cyclamate stuff. So people started sucking down the saccharine, not only in sodas, but also in coffee. It became common to serve coffee with a little bowl of saccharine pills next to a little bowl of sugar cubes.

Alas, in the 1970s, the lab rats didn’t seem any keener on saccharine than they were on cyclamate. The headlines got scary again. Saccharine didn’t get banned, but the controversy took its toll, and I recall that a lot of people started to have doubts about it.

So by the time the 1980s arrived the market was ready for another name to claim the limelight. And that’s just what happened. A chemical called aspartame, also known by the trade name NutraSweet, became common in sodas and, presumably, in various types of food as well.

Aspartame seems to have enjoyed a largely successful career. The world of artificial sweeteners never sleeps, though, so nobody seems to remain king for very long. Last year, for example, the BBC reported that Pepsi was dropping aspartame from its U.S. formulation of Diet Pepsi.

The new recipe employs something called sucralose mixed with something else called acesulfame potassium. I don’t know if Saipan is considered the U.S. market for these purposes but if it is, well, now you know about the change.

This ever-evolving world of beverages has inspired me. I’m going to spend some time in the workshop where I keep my fruit flies and carburetor parts. I’m wondering if I could invent the next big thing.

My ideal product would have zero calories, would not harm your teeth, would not be toxic, would not stain your clothes if you spilled it, would be something you could readily metabolize, would be clear so you could see contaminating particulates, would not require refrigeration, would be something that effectively relieves thirst when consumed, would be inexpensive to produce and bottle, and would blend readily with other liquids or soluble solids, thus making it a good base for other drinks.

That is a wildly optimistic list of specifications. But I hope that a laboratory can invent such a product because, after all, nature seems to always leaves us wanting.

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Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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