Feb 262012

Have you ever wondered how sweetness equivalence is measured? When we read that aspartame is “200 times as sweet as sucrose” what does that actually mean? Does that mean that 100mg of aspartame on the tongue will produce a sensation that is 200 times as intense as 100mg of sucrose?

I’ve wondered about this for YEARS. Consider other bodily sensations, like sound. If you sit quietly in a perfectly quiet place, you will begin to hear internal “noise” like your own breathing and probably some level of tinnitus. Consider that a baseline. Now compare that with the LOUDEST sound you have ever heard. In my case it would probably be my first rock concert, Van Halen. The range of internal sensation for sound is enormous.

Unfortunately for humans, the range of sensation for physical pain is also vast. Our other senses have ranges much greater than that of the sensation of sweetness. But even with taste, the range of sensation is great. Consider hot sauces, and what an enormous physical sensation that capsaicin and other capsaicinoids can produce. But perception of sweetness is different. The range from barely detectable to pure-sucrose-on-the-tongue is not very great. Why is that? Why does the human body have such a disparity in the ranges of sensation that we can perceive? Why do hearing and pain have ranges of sensation so vastly greater than the perception of sweetness? How did evolution “work” to create this situation?

When aspartame was first released as Equal brand by Searle, an advertizing campaign was run which claimed that Equal “tastes great straight.” I seem to recall Cher pouring the contents of a blue paper packet of Equal onto her tongue. Indeed, a similar test with a pink packet of saccharine produced a miserable and bitter result. From there I began to wonder what putting PURE aspartame on the tongue would be like. If you notice, you can’t buy PURE artificial sweeteners.

I long suspected that what it actually MEANS when the statement is made that an artificial sweetener is X times as sweet as sucrose is that a solution of the sweetener diluted X times is EQUIVALENT IN TASTE to a solution of sucrose. Indeed, a bit of Google-fu gives the result. In fact this is similar to the “Scoville scale” of heat in chili peppers. The Scoville scale is not a measurement of PPM of capsaicin but a dilution equivalence.

I do wonder though, if our tongues and brains were wired so that our sweetness range was like that of hearing or chili heat. Would chemicals like aspartame or sucralose become controlled substances? Consider how “abused” sweetened food is right now; what if your chocolate bar or pancake syrup was two hundred times as intense as it is now? Would we have pre-employment screening for sucralose?

 Posted by on 02/26/2012 Opinion, Science

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