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Sweet Enhancer Gets Green Light

Ingredients: Taste science may help reverse decline in soft drink sales

by Melody M. Bomgardner
March 17, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 11

Credit: Melody Bomgardner/C&EN
Low-sugar colas such as Pepsi Next aim for fewer calories with a full-sugar taste.
Pepsi Next, a lower-sugar cola.
Credit: Melody Bomgardner/C&EN
Low-sugar colas such as Pepsi Next aim for fewer calories with a full-sugar taste.

A sweetness-enhancing ingredient developed by Senomyx, a taste science company, has received a designation of “generally recognized as safe” for use in beverages by the expert panel of the Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Association. The new substance, if deployed by Senomyx partner PepsiCo and accepted by consumers, could help the beverage industry slow or reverse a decadelong decline in carbonated soft drink sales, experts say.

The ingredient, called Sweetmyx, is not itself sweet but enhances the taste of sugar in products with reduced levels of sucrose or fructose, according to Senomyx. To find new ingredients, the company uses high-throughput techniques to screen libraries of molecules for those that bind to taste receptors. Potential hits are evaluated by trained taste testers and then optimized for commercialization.

The assays are based on Senomyx’s research into how humans detect tastes. The sense of sweetness is mediated by two G protein-coupled receptors, T1R2 and T1R3. The receptors have binding sites on an extracellular domain called the Venus flytrap because it sports two lobes and a hinge. In a 2010 paper, the firm’s scientists hypothesized that sweeteners such as sucrose bind to the hinge region and close the flytrap, whereas larger enhancer molecules bind near the opening and close the flytrap more forcefully (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0911660107).

Senomyx has not disclosed the chemical makeup of Sweetmyx. But in another 2010 paper—in collaboration with Coca-Cola Co.—Senomyx scientists described a set of heterocyclic compounds with structures that resemble saccharin, an artificial sweetener (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0911670107).

Artificial sweeteners, with their zero-calorie promise, once lifted sales of carbonated soft drinks. But soda sales have been retreating for nine years, says Gary A. Hemphill, managing director of research for the consulting firm Beverage Marketing Corp. “Even diet soft drinks have hit a ceiling and are now declining faster than the overall market.”

To attract consumers, “there is an effort afoot to develop natural diet sweeteners and products like sweetness enhancers to improve taste and calorie count,” Hemphill says. But the real test will be whether consumers accept the new additive, and that is hard to predict, he warns.



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