Commentary

By Any Name, Nestle's Altered Sugar Will Taste As Sweet

Nestlé can alter the structure of sugar so that it will be able to use 40% less of it to achieve the same degree of sweetness in its chocolate, it announced yesterday. It hopes to start using the process, which is patent pending, in the likes of its KitKat and Crunch bars starting in 2018. 

“Stefan Catsicas, Nestlé’s chief technology officer, said that humans only taste a fraction of the sugar they consume because the crystals do not dissolve completely until they are swallowed,” reports Lindsay Whipp for Financial Times. “He said that his team managed to alter the structure of crystals so they contain less sugar, but taste just as good, having tested it out on a number of taster panels.”

“We decreased the total content of the sugar crystal, so for the same sensation you eat much less,” he said.

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“We want people to get used to a different taste, a taste that would be more natural,” Catsicas tellsBloomberg’s Thomas Mulier. “We really want to be the drivers of the solution.”

The problem, of course, is obesity and related health problems caused by the steep increase in added sugars most of us consume.

“Big food companies that also include Mondelez International Inc. and PepsiCo Inc. are scrambling to create healthier products to reduce their reliance on treats laden with sugar and salt. It comes as the U.K., Mexico and some U.S. cities implement sugar taxes to help fight childhood obesity and diabetes, which affects four times as many people now than in 1980,” Mulier reminds us.

“Professor Julian Cooper, chair of the Scientific Committee at the Institute of Food Science and Technology, said Nestle's development was important: ‘This is good science. A lot of people have been looking at sugar trying to reduce the amount,’” the BBC reports

But it could be a two-edged sword in two ways.

The adapted sugar would give Nestlé products “the ‘halo-effect,’ in that people may think they can eat more,” according to Cooper, who has worked in sugar for 40 years. And “Nestle's patents could spur rivals to make similar advances,” he points out. “Although [a patent] protects what you have done, it also tells your rivals about it,” Cooper says.

Bloomberg’s Matthew Campbell and Corinne Gretler wrote a feature story last May carrying the provocative headline, “Nestlé Wants to Sell You Both Sugary Snacks and Diabetes Pills.” The subhed: “Take two Butterfingers and call me in the morning.”

Some observers find it troublesome that the company has been selling sugar-laden products while, at the same time, it is developing medicines to combat chronic diseases and redefine itself as a scientifically driven “nutrition, health, and wellness company.” But, write Campbell and Gretler, CTO Catsicas — a quadrilingual Swiss neuroscientist — “is the elegant embodiment of Nestlé’s conviction that there’s no conflict.”

“Sugar is not addictive,” Catsicas, who was at the forefront of yesterday’s announcement, tells them.  “You get habituated to sugar, which is not being addicted.”

Campbell and Gretler report that “shortly after he came to Nestlé, Catsicas gradually put less sugar in his morning coffee, cutting out about 10% at a time. Within three months, he says proudly, he was taking it black.”

That’s one way of doing it.

“Reducing sugar is the Holy Grail of food companies these days — but does it work?” Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, observes in an interview with the New York Times’ Stephanie Strom.

“Professor Nestle, who has no connection to the company, said it was impossible to know how much promise the product has, particularly because candy — which the food business prefers to call ‘confections’ — is not the biggest source of sugar in the diet. “That’s soda, and then what the Department of Agriculture calls grain-based desserts,” she said.

Among other things we tend to crave.

Speaking of whimsical phrases, what would Danny O’Day and Farfel the Dog think of all this, I wonder? “N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestlé's makes the very best chocolate … with reformulated sugar” is a mouthful.

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