This prompt was part of an agency sprint for our Insights and Implications class. Egg Strategy tasked us with trend forecasting the future of sweeteners.
The human desire for sweet
Before we look forward, we must look at the role sugar plays in our lives today. Sweet has always had positive connotations for us. We celebrate birthdays, weddings and holidays with cakes, cookies, and candy. This is especially true of Americans, who consume almost 4x as much sugar as the rest of the world. But as we’ve become more educated on the health risks associated with sugar consumption, consumer demand for healthier alternatives has been on the rise.
84% of Americans are limiting sugar in their diet
79% check labels for sugar / sweetener used
These behaviors have led companies to develop reduced sugar and alternative sweetener options (including natural alternatives) to maintain a perceived sweetness level without involving incriminating ingredients. But society is learning that even these alternative options have health risks of their own. Companies as well as consumers are struggling to find a balance when it comes to sweetness vs. ingredient perception.
So the question becomes, what can we do today to help combat the adverse effects of sweetener while still enjoying sweet flavors? The first thing we can do is turn to neurogastronomy, which is a fairly new and emerging science. It’s essentially the study of tricking the brain, which we’ll call Flavor Hacking. Flavor makes use of all five senses, and flavor hacking (neurogastronomy) is a way we can manipulate those senses into thinking something contains sugar, or more sugar, than it actually does. We’ll dive into a few of the many ways we can hack each sense.
How to hack each sense
Not only can we trick the mind to experience sweet, we can also use science to trick taste buds. Welcome to flavor tripping with the miracle berry. This West African berry is known for making acidic foods taste sweet. That’s because it contains the miraculin protein. When miracle fruit is consumed, the miraculin in the berry binds to the taste buds on the tongue. Under the influence of miraculin, however, the sweet receptors start signaling and suppress sour tastes, making things like lemons or tomatoes taste sweet.
Science + The Future
Scientists are currently trying to genetically modify tomatoes and lettuce to naturally produce miraculin, as the miracle berry is expensive and hard to come by, this making it cheaper and more accessible to wider audiences. There are also scientists working to change/trick neural pathways to the taste detecting center of the brain. Changing these neural pathways could allow a cheeseburger to taste like a cupcake. It's been quite successful on mice so far.
Each of the methods we’ve explored holds societal impact. Flavor hacking and miraculin may help chemo patients with taste distortion, potentially improving their nutrition and quality of life. For diabetics, miraculin could help protect against insulin resistance. These methods can also help fight obesity by enhancing the sweetness of low-sugar foods while limiting calorie intake. This research can even be applied to the foodservice and retail industries, as it enables us to set a sweetness scene in restaurants and homes. Americans will likely to continue to lower their sugar intake, but it takes time to change our taste preferences and behaviors. In the meantime, flavor hacking and miraculin could help us wean ourselves off of sweetener without giving up sweet flavor.
Therefore, the future of sweetener isn’t actually sweetener at all.
Catie Frech (Strategist)
Curtis Kingrea (Strategist)