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For more than a century, food technologists have been on a quest - a quest for perfect, guiltless sweetness, something that could match the sweetness of sugar without the calories. They came up with saccharin, Splenda, Stevia. Each had drawbacks. Now, as NPR's Dan Charles reports, there's a new candidate.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: If you're in the business of food processing, the annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago is a combination of Super Bowl, Mecca and Disneyland.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I know - ice cream and fiber. Is that the best thing ever?
CHARLES: Right in the middle of the vast exhibition hall I find the Tate & Lyle booth. This is the company that introduced the British Empire to the sugar cube back in 1875. A century later, it invented sucralose, aka Splenda.
MICHAEL HARRISON: We have a deep understanding of sweetening and how food systems are sweetened.
CHARLES: This is Michael Harrison, vice president of new product development at Tate & Lyle, and his latest new product is called allulose.
HARRISON: This is a rare sugar, OK, a sugar that's found in nature.
CHARLES: Chemically speaking, it's almost identical to ordinary sugar, and it's sweet. But the amazing thing is, my body will not turn this sugar into calories. A few feet from us, people are lining up to taste it in cups of chocolate and vanilla soft-serve ice cream. I try it. It's good. It's sweet.
Harrison says most other sugar substitutes wouldn't work in this ice cream because sugar and allulose do more than just deliver sweetness, they also keep the ice cream from freezing solid.
HARRISON: It allows that ice cream to be soft-serve. It's a smooth, creamy texture. It's bringing the functionality of sugar because it is sugar.
CHARLES: This all sounds practically perfect - all the pleasure of sugar with none of the pain. Tate & Lyle have now come up with a way to manufacture allulose in large quantities. Could this be, finally, a free lunch?
I called George Fahey, a nutrition expert at the University of Illinois. Fahey is actually a fan of allulose. He signed-off on a report to the Food and Drug Administration arguing that allulose is safe. But Fahey says you have to understand, the same thing that makes novel, low-calorie carbohydrates like allulose so attractive also can make them quite unpleasant. That thing is the fact that our bodies don't digest them.
GEORGE FAHEY: So what happens is that they travel right through the small intestine and get into the large bowel.
CHARLES: They're just dietary fiber, Fahey said. Which is good - we need more fiber.
FAHEY: The bad news is that you have to be very cautious about how much you eat of this stuff.
CHARLES: Because once it goes into the large bowel, all the bacteria there may start feasting on it, producing gas and painful intestinal problems. In fact, this is exactly what happens to lactose, the sugar in milk, when people who are lactose intolerant consume it. They can't digest lactose, so for them lactose is also a low-calorie sugar, and it's not pleasant at all.
FAHEY: When we come up with a new carbohydrate that escapes intestinal digestion, you have to worry a lot about what happens when it gets into the large bowel.
CHARLES: The companies that are planning to use allulose in food have told the Food and Drug Administration they won't use a lot of it. Allulose will never replace all the ordinary sugar in food. Such small amounts, they say, won't cause any problems. But there could also be other effects that aren't as well understood.
Robert Margolskee, who's director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, says when a sugar substitute that used to be rare starts entering the food supply, it can affect the living community of microbes in our gut, the so-called microbe biome.
ROBERT MARGOLSKEE: That would be another issue that one would want to know with any of these compounds - what do they do to the micro biome, and then what does that do to the person?
CHARLES: It could be good. It could also be not so good. A few scientists think it could help explain a curious observation. In some studies, people who ate lots of sugar and people who ate lots of sugar substitutes both seemed more prone to obesity and type-two diabetes. There are other theories too. But the bottom line - no free lunch, probably. Sorry. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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