Reducing the amount of sugar in our diet undoubtedly improves our health. However for the processed food industry, increased consumer concern over sugar is one of the top threats to their profits. After all food and beverage companies are highly dependent on sugar to make its products taste better and drive cravings that keep people coming back to buy more and more.
To address this challenge food and beverage companies have been on the hunt for a silver bullet to cure their sugar addiction. One company that Big Food has enlisted for support is Senomyx, an American biotech firm that creates additives that change how our food tastes and smells. By mapping the tongue and using its proprietary technology to understand what chemicals trigger our taste receptors, Senomyx has created a pipeline of artificial and natural additives that they hope will transform the foods we eat and drink. The question is, are these additives safe? And given the processed food industry’s track record, will we even know what’s being added into our food?
To help in the battle to reduce sugar and calories, Senomyx developed Sweetmyx. Unlike many of the artificial and so-called natural sweeteners that have been introduced over the past decade, Sweetmyx operates in a totally different way. Rather than being a sweetener it works by enhancing the sweet taste of sugar or other artificial sweeteners, thereby allowing manufacturers to reduce the amount of sweeteners used in any given food or beverage.
So what do you need to know about Sweetmyx? Here’s a basic Q&A I’ve put together for my readers:
Q: How exactly does Sweetmyx work?
A: Well, I’m no scientist, but I’ve learned from various readings that our tongue’s taste receptors work somewhat like pieces of a puzzle. When sugar hits our tongue a molecule of it will connect with a sweet taste receptor, stimulating the nerve pathway and creating the sensation of sweet. Sweetmyx hijacks that pathway by agitating and exciting that sweet taste receptor with another chemical that works when it’s in the presence of sugar. So in a way, it increases your receptor’s sensitivity to sweet taste sensations.
Q: Is Sweetmyx natural?
A: Although Senomyx has both “natural” and artificial flavoring additives in their pipeline, from what I’ve been able to surmise, S617 (the company’s moniker for Sweetmyx) is not a naturally derived sweetness enhancer. It appears to be artificially synthesized from chemicals.
Q: Is Sweetmyx safe?
A: We just don’t know. Despite requesting safety information several times from Senomyx, neither I nor various media partners I work with have been able to get any details of safety testing conducted on Sweetmyx.
Q: How was Sweetmyx tested and approved?
A: Again, there isn’t much information out there. What we do know is that Senomyx declared Sweetmyx GRAS (a term coined by the FDA that means Generally Recognized as Safe) based on a FEMA panel recommendation.
What’s FEMA? It stands for Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, and it’s a trade organization representing 120 member food and flavoring companies. What this Sweetmyx example highlights is that basically the flavoring industry not only develops the food additives, but then it’s allowed to test and approve them as safe using its own industry association. This practice points out one of the many flaws with the FDA’s governance of what’s allowed in food, and it’s the subject of a recent lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety against the FDA.
Q: What foods will Sweetmyx be in?
A: Pepsico has an exclusive deal with Senomyx to use Sweetmyx in its non-alcoholic beverages. So that means it could be added to any of Pepsi’s line-up of fruit juices, sports and energy drinks, and sodas.
Firmenich SA has negotiated the rights to commercialize Sweetmyx in food. As the world’s #2 ranking flavoring company, Firmenich’s sales reach is powerful so Sweetmyx will likely land in cookies, muffins, cakes, yogurt, and other highly processed foods found in your grocery store.
Q: How will Sweetmyx be labeled?
A: Again, right now we’re operating in the dark, but we do know that food and beverage companies wants it to appear as innocuous as possible. So you can probably bet it won’t be labeled as Sweetmyx—that would draw too much consumer attention. Most likely you’ll see it lumped in with artificial flavorings, artificial sweeteners, or perhaps listed as a “sweetener blend”.
Q: So what’s the bottom line? Is Sweetmyx a good thing? Is it healthy?
A: Answering whether Sweetmyx is good for you can be complicated, but here’s my perspective. Senomyx and Big Food would like us to think they’re helping us out by introducing lower-calorie, healthier foods made with Sweetmyx. In reality they’re introducing yet another additive into an already highly processed food world.
While Sweetmyx may help some people reduce sugar consumption, it totally ignores the most viable health solution—encouraging people to eat real food instead of the highly processed diet most Americans consume. Let’s be honest, who knows how this additive will affect our bodies? We certainly haven’t seen any testing that should make us rest easier. But even if Senomyx and Pepsi produce some safety studies, rarely do these studies examine the long-term effects of additives and how they interact with all the other flavoring and colorings that are in our food. Furthermore, time and again we’ve learned we don’t truly understand the intricacies of the metabolic pathways our body. Sweetmyx could be yet another additive that may trick our taste buds today, but wreak untold damage over our lifetimes.
Now that you’ve heard my opinion, what do you think? Is a product using Sweetmyx something you’d consider buying? What sweeteners do you consider safe, and how do you minimize the amount of sugar in your diet?
UPDATE 8/31/2015: Pepsi announced it will be test marketing two sodas (Mug Root Beer and Manzanita Sol) sweetened with Sweetmyx. The test markets will be in Denver and Philadelphia, and the new Sweetmyx-enhanced beverages should be on shelf by the end of October 2015. Click here for the full Bloomberg Business news article regarding the test.