The ingenuity and creativity of food scientists who are in search of sweet tastes are evident when you take a quick stroll down the beverage aisle in any corner store. You’ll find some drinks contain sugar. Diet sodas may contain artificial or natural sweeteners that are low in calories. High fructose Corn Syrup is the sweetener of choice in America.
I am a scientist who studies the compounds found in nature. I also love food. It can be difficult to determine what exactly you’re eating when confusing labels claim that foods and drinks are “diet,” “zero-sugar,” or have no artificial sweeteners.
What are these sweet molecules, exactly? What is the difference between cane sugar, artificial sweeteners, and their flavors? It is important first to understand the way taste buds function.
When certain molecules bind with the taste buds of your tongue, you perceive sweet flavors. Bomin Jeong/EyeEm by Getty Images
Taste buds and chemistry
The Taste Map, which states that different flavors are tasted on other parts of the tongue, is not true. All flavors are available anywhere. Taste buds are present. What is a taste bud, exactly?
The taste buds on your tongue are an area that contains dozens of taste cells. These cells are able to detect five different flavors: sweet, salty, and bitter. Food molecules dissolve in saliva and are then washed along the taste buds, where they bind with the receptor cells. The perception of flavor is based on the shape of molecules that bind to receptors.
The molecules that are sweet bind to proteins called G-proteins on taste receptor cells. A molecule that binds to these G-proteins triggers a set of signals sent to the brain, where they are interpreted as sweet.
The simplest sugar is glucose, which is made up of a ring of carbon atoms surrounded by oxygen and hydrogen. NEUROtiker/WikimediaCommons
Carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen are the three main components of natural sugars. Imagine sugars to be rings of carbon with oxygen and hydrogen attached on the outside. Sugar is sticky because of the oxygen and hydrogen groups. They act like Velcro, adhering to oxygen and hydrogen groups on other sugar molecules.
Monosaccharides are the simplest sugars. You may have heard of a few of them. Glucose, the most basic of sugars, is mainly made by plants. Fructose comes from fruit. Galactose sugar is found in milk.
Table sugar, or sucrose (which comes from sugarcane), is a disaccharide. A disaccharide is a compound that’s made up of two Monosaccharides. When fructose and glucose molecules join, they form sucrose. Lactose is derived from milk, and maltose comes from grains.
Each sugar is processed differently by the body. Eventually, they are broken into molecules, which your body then converts to energy. Calories are used to measure the power of sugar and other foods.