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As health-conscious Americans try to cut back on sugar, Coca-Cola has turned its quest for alternative sweeteners into a competition. The company says it will award a million dollars to the winner of its sweetener challenge. Although, as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, coming up with a new sugar replacement will not be easy.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you now think twice before reaching for a sugary drink, you're not alone. Darren Seifer is a food and beverage analyst with the NPD Group.
DARREN SEIFER: Sugar is now the number-one item that consumers want to avoid in their diets.
AUBREY: Sales of carbonated soft drinks have taken a hit, Seifer says, and the problem for the beverage industry is that alternatives, such as artificially sweetened drinks, turn off many consumers, too.
SEIFER: If the regular sodas are facing the backlash because they have too much sugars then the diet colas are facing backlash because they contain a lot of artificial ingredients.
AUBREY: So why don't we have a sweetener that many of us are looking for? One that seems natural, tastes like sugar but without the calories.
PAUL BRESLIN: Well, this is a hundred-million-dollar question because it's so difficult and because it's so potentially lucrative. This is the big question.
AUBREY: That's Paul Breslin, a professor in the Nutritional Sciences Department at Rutgers University. He says there may be an urgency now given sugar's role in obesity and Type 2 diabetes, but, looking for sugar alternatives?
BRESLIN: The search for these is actually an old idea.
AUBREY: Remember Tab Cola, made with the sweetener saccharin? That was introduced back in 1963.
BRESLIN: And there was a big push to identify other compounds that tasted better than saccharin, and so the chemists figured out how to generate these compounds to the tune of making many, many, many compounds that tasted sweet.
AUBREY: But there have been challenges for these artificial sweeteners, from safety questions to regulatory hurdles and taste. Breslin says when it comes to sugar, it's hard to trick the tongue.
BRESLIN: Our love of sugar goes back predating our species to when we last shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees and apes. So yes, we have an ancient love of sugar.
AUBREY: Those ancestors ate a diet that included lots of fruit, and the natural sugars were a big source of energy. So Breslin says, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that our brains and bodies would want to seek out the real thing.
BRESLIN: When something doesn't match the profile of sugar, you don't even necessarily know why. You can't give voice to why it's not sugar, you just know something's off about it.
AUBREY: Moving forward, he says the quest for alternatives is moving away from the chemistry lab.
BRESLIN: Right now I think the searches are more focused on finding natural sweeteners that are naturally sourced, like plant compounds.
AUBREY: There are already several on the market, including stevia and monk fruit-based based sweeteners, but so far they're not as popular as beverage-makers had hoped. Coca-Cola says to enter its sweetener competition they're looking for novel compounds, and Paul Breslin says he's optimistic they're out there.
BRESLIN: I'm sure that there are many more out there that we haven't found yet.
AUBREY: But finding a natural compound that can mimic the profile and taste of sugar, Breslin says, is a lot easier said than done.
AUBREY: Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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