Nature offers many naturally sweet fruits, roots, saps and stems. For instance, Stevia is extracted from sweet leaves of the stevia plant and Agave nectar is pressed from the roots of this succulent desert plant.
On the horizon you may be seeing more sweeteners that are actually proteins extracted from plant sources. Because they are proteins and not sugars, they have virtually no calories and do not elevate blood sugar.
In this article we’ll look at 7 sweet proteins from plants in Malaysia, Africa and China.
These plants were identified, as many medicines and superfoods, by listening to local folk in the rainforests and rural communities to learn about their cultural foodways - and following up with research to identify key ingredients. These sweet proteins were all derived from plants in common use for many many years. As extracts, they are hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar.)
Though the foods have been eaten for centuries, these protein extracts are in various stages of production/acceptance in the US.
As with many foods and medicines derived from ancient rainforests and thousands of years of cultural foodways, the local people are often not compensated for their knowledge and resources, and the resources may be drained once the product becomes popular and produced by alternate pathways such as cultivation in another country, by microbes or by genetic engineering.
While some of the research efforts around these proteins are utilizing bacteria and GMO organisms to attempt to reproduce the proteins in a patented process that no longer involves the locals, it is refreshing to see that in at least some cases there is a strong effort to help restore deforested areas and support the local economy while at the same time providing a minimally processed healthy ingredient for the world.
Here is an overview of 7 sweet proteins
This protein comes from a Malaysian fruit. It has a unique profile of tasting sweet on its own, but also modifying taste of sour foods. After you eat curculin, it will make sour foods taste sweet.
It is approved in Japan as a food additive but not yet in the US.
Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Park Conservatory.
This protein comes from a climbing cherry plant found in several countries in West Africa. The berry doesn’t have a sweet taste on its own, but is known for its taste modifying properties. After chewing the berry (or allowing the extract to dissolve on the tongue) any sour food eaten afterwards will taste sweet. It is traditionally used to sweeten the taste of soured cornbread, a traditional fermented porridge. It is often called Miracle Berry and can be found in an extract form, and is used in homes (and some restaurants) to explore its taste-modifying effects. The fresh berries often do not maintain their properties when shipped at a distance. Photo courtesy of Wiki.
This protein comes from the red berries of the katumfe plant, which grows in African rainforests where it is known as moi moi or ewe era. It's berries are also called miracle berry or serendipity berry. The berries are pyramid-shaped and contain 1-3 seeds encased in gel (which contains the thaumatin protein.) The seeds are chewed as a snack and the leaves are used to wrap foods, including a spicy bean pudding made of black eyed peas, peppers, onion, fish and eggs. When steamed the leaves and impart delicious taste to the pudding. See how the pudding is wrapped and steamed in moi moi leaves here:
The community is involved in its production and receives revenues from this natural resources. To learn more about the agreement go here: https://www.igb.fraunhofer.de/en/press-media/press-releases/2003/african-sweetener.html
Photo of moi moi leaves courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16987247
This protein is extracted from the seed of a flowering plant known as Mabinlang, found in Yunnan province, China. The seed is used medicinally in Chinese Medicine, and also chewed as a snack. On its own, the seed does not have a sweet taste, but the extract does. It is about 100-400x sweeter than sugar. Not yet FDA approved. Photo courtesy of aboutchina.org.
This protein was isolated from the root of a shrub native to the Transvaal region of South Africa. The local community chew on the roots, which are reportedly so sweet it can make 2 people fall in love. The company that is developing this product actually pays revenues to local community of Limpopo in South Africa, who maintains and harvests the plants. I am glad that the community here is receiving some recognition and revenue. It is 3000x sweeter than sugar. Challenges are that the shrub cannot be cultivated. At this time it is not yet FDA approved. Photo By Vengolis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Pentadin and Brazzein
These 2 proteins are extracted from the berry of the Oubli tree, a climbing shrub growing in several countries across West Africa especially Gabon and Cameroon. It is said to be so sweet, a child seeking the berries may forget to go home to their mothers (Oubli is based on the French word “to forget”) Brazzein has been in development for some time, with hopes to be on the market in the near future.The downside is that there are reportedly plans to use GMO corn to express this protein. While it’s important to acknowledge there is a limited supply of these berries, I hope it will be available in a minimally processed form or develop more ways to sustainably cultivate the plant, rather than resorting to GMO production. Photo courtesy of si.insider.edu
Let's keep our taste buds ready for more natural, healthy, sustainable and fair trade sweeters.