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Healthy Sweeteners: Protein Substitute Sugar

Proteins used as sweeteners have significant advantages over sugar. They are digested by the body just like any other protein in the GI tract. They do not raise blood sugar levels or insulin levels. They do not affect kidneys or liver. Lastly, they do not affect the microbiome in ways that sugars do.

Protein substitute sugar and other traditional sweeteners and it is claimed to be the healthy sweetener option to be adopted. Global diabetes prevalence in 2019 is estimated to be 9.3% that is 463 million people. It is expected to be about 10.2 by 2030. In India, there are an estimated 72.96 million cases of diabetes in the adult population. A government survey found 11.8% prevalence in India. The rates are higher in urban areas in comparison to the rural part of the nation.

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs either when the pancreas is not producing enough insulin or the body cannot effectively use that insulin produced. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. Hyperglycemia (raised blood sugar), is an effect of uncontrolled diabetes and with the passage of time leads to severe damage to body organs, mainly nerves and blood vessels.

There are two types of diabetes referred to as type 1 and type 2 diabetes. The former is characterized by deficient insulin production and requires daily administration of insulin. Type 2 diabetes results from the body’s ineffective use of diabetes. This type of diabetes results largely due to excessive weight and physical inactivity.

Risk factors for diabetes:

  1. Sedentary lifestyle
  2. High blood pressure
  3. Being obese or overweight
  4. Family history
  5. Polycystic ovarian syndrome
  6. Insulin resistance
  7. Low levels of “good” cholesterol
  8. Certain infections or diseases of the pancreas

Artificial Sweeteners- A Solution?

Artificial sweeteners, or sugar substitutes, are chemicals that are added to some food to make them taste sweet. They are low-calorie or non-nutritive sweeteners, offer sweet taste without any calories. The examples include- Saccharin (Sweet’N Low), Aspartame (NutraSweet), Sucralose (Splenda), etc. These sugar substitutes do not affect blood sugar levels.

Recent studies and researches have shown that they cause more harm to the body than benefit. Saccharin, by changing the gut bacteria composition leads to glucose intolerance. Artificial sweeteners have shown to cause weight gain. Some of the artificial sweeteners may cause unpleasant symptoms like headaches, depression, and seizures. There are also links between artificial sweeteners and cancer, heart failures, and brain tumors.

Talking about sugar alcohols such as erythritol, maltitol, Isomalt, xylitol, sorbitol, etc. these ingredients are found in food products labeled “sugar-free” or “no sugar added”. However, sugar alcohols are still carbohydrates and can still raise blood sugar levels. Sugar alcohols can also cause diarrhea.

Proteins substitute sugar

Proteins used as sweeteners have significant advantages over sugar. They are digested by the body just like any other protein in the GI tract. They do not raise blood sugar levels or insulin levels. They do not affect kidneys or liver. Lastly, they do not affect the microbiome in ways that sugars do.

The truth about sweet protein supplements | SFH Protein Blog ...

“Sweet proteins bind to our sweet receptors like sugar, thus triggering the sensation of sweet taste, and they are digested in the upper GI tract just like proteins” – Amai proteins

Presently, naturally occurring sweet and taste modifying proteins are seen as potential replacements for currently available artificial sweeteners.

Examples of proteins as substitutes

  1. Monellin: The protein can be purified from the fruit of Dioscoreophyllum cumminsii grown in West Africa. It consists of two non-covalently associated polypeptide chains. An A chain of 44 amino acid residues and a B chain of 50 amino acid residues.
  2. Brazzein: Originally isolated from the fruit of West African plant. The protein molecule consists of 54 amino acid residues and is between 500 to 2000 times sweeter than sucrose. It is an excellent alternative to the currently available low-calorie sweeteners.
  3. Thaumatin: They are a class of intensively sweet proteins. And are isolated from the fruit of plant Thaumatococcus danielli. Consisting of 207 amino acid residues and is approximately 1000 times sweeter than sucrose on a molar basis. It has been approved in many countries as a high-intensity sweetener.
  4. Curculin: Extracted from Curculigo latifolia. It is a very low-calorie sweetener, with a maximum sweetness of 0.35M of sucrose
  5. Mabinlin: Extracted from Capparis masaikai with sweetness around 400 times that of sucrose. It is a sweet protein with the highest known thermostability. It consists of 2 chains- A and B joined together with 2 disulfide bridges. The B chain also consists of 2 intramolecular disulfide bridges.
  6. Miraculin: It is a taste-modifying protein extracted from Richadella dulcified, an evergreen shrub native of West Africa. It is a single polypeptide with 191 amino acid residues. It has an unusual property of modifying sour taste into a sweet taste.
  7. Pentadin: it is a sweet protein extracted from Pentadiplandra brazen, a shrub found in tropical forests of few African countries. It is estimated to be about 500 times sweeter than sucrose.

These proteins substituting sugars are extracted from fruits growing along the equatorial belt.

Are they really Healthy sweetener option?

These sweet proteins are often a thousand times sweeter than sucrose on a molar basis. These proteins are plant products and are avidly pursued as non-carbohydrate sweeteners. They have significant commercial potential as sugar substitutes. The extraction and purification of these protein molecules from natural sources is very expensive. Therefore, several of them have been expressed in transgenic plants and bacteria for production. All of these sweet protein molecules interact with and stimulate the activation of the human sweet taste receptor {T1R2-T1R3 receptor}.

This ensures that protein can substitute sugar as sweeteners proving it to be a better alternative to adopt. 

Protein production techniques:

Proteins can be produced using techniques such as genetic and protein engineering. Extracting these sweet proteins is similar to beer brewing. Taking DNA and putting it in yeast where it grows. Thus, the resulting powder is pure protein.

These proteins are produced in the laboratories using the process of genetic recombination. There are various steps involved in the production of recombined proteins, like

  1. Obtaining cDNA and creating the expression clone
  2. Cloning
  3. Expressing protein in a suitable system
  4. The small scale test expression
  5. Protein purification
  6. Protein characterization

This protein is not genetically modified. For food to be considered a GMO, consumers have to eat a modified version of the fruit. However, the final product is sweet protein and contains no remnants of host organism’s (i.e. yeast). Thus, protein substitute sugar.

Conclusion

The laboratory-produced sugar substitute is a 100 percent designer protein, that’s even better than the original.

Potential industrial applications of these proteins are low-calorie sweetener industry, soft drinks, and chocolate industries.

However, if the sugar in chocolate is replaced by sweet protein, then chocolates will weigh only half as much, and the chocolate maker needs to add nutritional fibers. This marks an important disadvantage of protein substituting sugar as sweetener option because it is less pleasing to the bakers considering profits.  

Some of the firms working on Sweet proteins are- Amai Proteins, Joywell Foods, Magellan Life sciences.

References:

Kant, R. (2005). Sweet proteins–potential replacement for artificial low calorie sweeteners. Nutrition Journal, 4(1), 5.

Priya, K., Gupta, V. R. M., & Srikanth, K. (2011). Natural sweeteners: A complete review. Journal of Pharmacy Research, 4(7), 2034-2039.

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