This Protein Could Be the Next Hot Sugar Alternative

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

It's no secret that too much sugar can make you die early from heart problems, cause you to gain weight, develop insulin resistance or diabetes, and basically ruin your life from the inside out. Thankfully, artificial sweeteners offer a low- or no-calorie alternative, so you can satisfy your sweet tooth safely… right?  

Sorry, folks, those have potential negative health effects, too. That they can cause the same crappy effects as the regular old kind is a cruel joke -- "tastes worse, isn't better for you" isn't exactly an appealing promotional slogan.  

Does this mean you have to relegate yourself to a teaspoon of sugar in our coffee, and avoid soda? While the answer is probably "yes" to both of those, scientists have been working on a curious fruit protein that could be the natural, no-calorie sweet substitute that usually only exists in our collective imagination.

The future of sweet might just be a protein called brazzein

Brazzein is a protein that comes from the fruit of a tropical West African plant called oubli, more formally known as Pentadiplandra brazzeana. Natives and wildlife have consumed oubli fruit on the regular for as long as they've been around, but since Western scientists rediscovered the fruit in the mid-'80s, it's drawn considerable attention for its protein-based sweetness.

In the decades after brazzein was isolated in 1994, though, it's proven difficult to produce enough of the stuff to make it available on a commercial scale. Gotta get those dollars, right? Beyond the profit motive is a health interest; a calorie-free, natural sweetener could be a godsend for people with diabetes, and any way to reduce the Western reliance on refined sugars may help alleviate the costs associated with diseases like obesity.

That may have just changed: Scientists have just figured out how to churn out a much higher yield of brazzein using yeast, which means it's one step closer to your kitchen table.

So where can I buy brazzein?

The process of producing and extracting brazzein is one of the major downfalls of the sweetener. Being difficult to extract and produce means that those costs are going to be passed down to the consumer, and the challenges of production have already burned one company that thought it had nearly had a product ready for market two years ago.

There's good news, though. The recent discovery makes production much more efficient, and brazzein typically tests around 2,000 times more sweet than regular old sugar, meaning you have to use far less to have the same happy effects. On top of that, MB Group USA claims its brazzein-based zero-calorie sweetener, called MiraSweet, is "coming soon," though if you're really desperate you could ask for a chance to buy some ahead of schedule.

Why is this a big deal?

If you want to make a food or drink sweet, right now you basically have two options: sugar or chemicals. Stevia made waves a few years ago, but commercial versions of it are still highly processed. Brazzein -- which advocates say is closer in flavor to regular old sucrose more than stevia products -- may help America kick its sugar habit for good, though it'll probably take some time for it to happen. As another advantage over artificial sweeteners, the fact that brazzein comes from a fruit people have eaten for years means safety isn't likely to be a concern.

Dr. Adrienne Youdim, a specialist in medical nutritional therapy and medical weight loss, agrees that this is a quality step in the right direction, especially as more and more people are shying away from carb-laden sweeteners (in other words, sugar) and artificial ones. "Brazzein is an attractive alternative, as it is a protein that has been used for years by indigenous peoples, thereby vetting its applicability and safety," she notes.

So, while you're not likely to see a brazzein shaker anytime soon at your local coffee shop, you may be able to buy some for your home soon. Who knows? It may help get us one step closer to solving the whole sugar-heart-disease-diabetes-obesity-early-death problem.

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Monica Beyer is a writer who's looking to get her hands on some brazzein. Know anyone? Follow her @monicabeyer.