Finding could lead to the development of sweeteners that taste more like natural sugar
In the highly competitive world of food science, the search for a non-caloric sweetener that actually tastes like natural sugar has lead to the development of several name brand products. What hasn’t been clear in the past is why these artificial sweeteners never seem to attain the same quality of taste as sugar. Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore have for the first time identified how sugars and artificial sweeteners such as sucralose (Splenda®) interact with taste receptors on the tongue – a development that could lead to the creation of synthetic sweeteners with a taste more like that of natural sugar. The research will be published in the November 8, 2005, issue of the journal Current Biology.
“A major goal of the food science industry has been to create a sweetener that tastes like sugar but isn’t high in calories,” says Steven Munger, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and principal investigator on the project. “To do this, it would be invaluable to know how the natural substance interacts with taste receptors so that synthetic products can be created to mimic that interaction.”
Dr. Munger and colleagues identified the parts of two taste receptors on the tongue that seem to be critical for the detection of sucralose and natural sugars. Those receptors are called T1R2 and T1R3. “Previous research told us that the synthetic sweetener aspartame only interacted with T1R2, while another, cyclamate, only interacts with T1R3,” says Dr. Munger. “We found that sugars and sucralose interact with both T1R2 and T1R3, but at different levels of intensity. This suggests that sucralose interacts with the receptors in a similar way to natural sugars, and that sugars and sucralose may need to interact with both receptors to elicit a sweet taste.”
Understanding the molecular mechanisms of the sweet taste perception has been difficult to measure in the past. There are so few receptors on the tongue and in the nose that it is hard to obtain enough pure receptors for research. “We developed a strategy that allowed us to use bacteria to make lots of the portion of the receptor that we believed interacted with sugars, and then purified those proteins,” says Dr. Munger. “The result was an abundance of receptors. This allowed us to characterize which part of the receptors play a key role in interacting with the sugars we introduced.
“We hope that food scientists can use our research to create sugar alternatives that behave like natural sugar when interacting with taste receptors on the tongue,” says Dr. Munger. “That would give the synthetic products a much more natural taste, while offering more options for consumers who rely on low-calorie products to help control diseases like diabetes and obesity.”
Dr. Munger was recognized last year with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the nation’s highest honor for professionals at the outset of their independent research careers. His current research is funded by the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders at the National Institutes of Health and was done in partnership with Graeme Conn, Ph.D., at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.
For patient inquiries, call 1-800-492-5538 or click here to make an appointment.