Monday, November 09, 2015

How Sweet?

There is a scale for measuring nearly anything in this world. For hardness in minearals, you have the Mohs scale, for the pungency of spicy foods you have the Scoville scale, but was is the scale for sweetness? Surprisingly, there is none.

All we have is a reference point of "1" for sucrose (table sugar). Everything else is relative to sucrose. Among carbohydrate molecules, the various combinations in which Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen arrange themselves gives a range of sweetness but there is a also wide range of non-carb molecules that can shock our tongues with their sweetness.

Perhaps the most common non-carb sugar is Aspartame. It is 200x sweeter than sucrose and it was originally synthsized by a scientist looking for a an anti-ulcer drug. Then there is Steviol Glycoside, a chemical extracted from a plant that was used by the Indians in Paraguay. It is 300x sweeter than sugar. At the far end of the scale there is Lugduname, a Guanidine compound extracted from guano, or bird-shit. It is 300,000+ times sweeter than table sugar!

Chemical wizardry can produce incredible levels of sweetness (at zero calories too!), but are these chemicals safe for consumption? Here again scientific opinion is non quite conclusive, so different countries have their own ways of handling sweetness.

Aspartame is widely marketed in USA under the brand-names Nutrasweet and Equal, and is being used in everything from chewing gum to cola's and puddings. On the other hand, Japan has actively discouraged artificial sweetners and promoted the use of naturally occuring compounds like Steviol. This Stevia-derived compound now accounts for more than 40 percent of sweetners consumed in Japan!

Japan's import of Stevia is so huge that last year it imported the entire lot harvested in Paraguay -- about 600 tonnes, worth about US$ 1.5 billion! Even then, the largest producer of Stevia is not Paraguay, but China, which produces more than 8o percent of global production of Stevia.

Recently, the Government of India has also tossed its hat into the ring by approving the use of Stevia in foods.

Will this result in a sharp increase in the cultivation, processing and use of Stevia as an alternative to cane sugar in India?


* Aspartame --

* Sweetness Scale --

* Wiki on Sweetness -

* GoI Gazette notification on Stevia (May, 2015) -- * GoI Gazette (2015) - Approval of Stevia - "Madhu Tulsi" --

* * (2015) - Japan to buy all of Paraguay's Stevia --
- 600-700 tons a year and a value of about US$1-1.5 billion  (= $ 2500/kg = ₹ 1,62,500)


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