Can Science Make Healthier Junk Food?

by Christina Gvaliant
Can Science Make Healthier Junk Food?


For a long time now, we have had a love/hate relationship with junk food.  On the one hand, we know those empty calories aren’t good for us. On the other hand, we love our sweets, and our crispy, salty snacks.

Food manufacturers love them too. Because they are relatively cheap to manufacture, extremely shelf-stable, and irresistible.  Unlike fresh fruits and vegetables, which continue to be a hard sell, sweets and snacks practically sell themselves — and have a very healthy profit margin.

But what if we could make those snacks and sweets healthier? Wouldn’t it be great if we could eat the foods we love without the consequences?

Two new ingredients seem to offer exactly that.

Real sugar without the calories

Allulose is a rare form of sugar that’s has only 1/10th the calories of regular sugar and a very low glycemic impact. This is not an artificial sweetener. It’s actually a naturally occurring sugar molecule that’s present in very small amounts in a few foods, including wheat and figs.

Food scientists have now figured out a way to mass produce allulose from fructose, using an enzymatic process. And you’re soon going to be seeing this ingredient showing up in processed foods in a big way.

As a naturally occurring sugar that’s already present in the food supply, it is presumed to be safe when consumed in moderate amounts. (Although our capacity for immoderation apparently knows no bounds.) In addition, human and animal studies using this ingredient have raised no safety concerns so the FDA has given it the green light.

Allulose is about 70% as sweet as regular table sugar but because it is largely unmetabolized, it provides virtually no calories.  It has a little bit of that cool-on-the-tongue sensation that you might know from sugar alcohols like erythritol, but none of the bitter taste associated with artificial sweeteners like sucralose or aspartame. And unlike sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners, allulose provides bulk, moisture retention, and browning capacity more similar to regular sugar, making it a very attractive sugar substitute.

Another thing thing that makes allulose extremely appealing to food manufacturers is the FDA’s recent ruling that it does not have to be included in sugars or added sugars on the Nutrition Facts label.

We know from consumer research that consumers have become very focused on sugar and added sugar, so not having to include allulose in those numbers on the label makes sweet products made with allulose look much better.  And because allulose is a naturally occurring sweetener, manufacturers can also say that the product contains no artificial sweeteners.

Pretty sweet, huh?

Allulose is about 70% as sweet as regular table sugar but because it is largely unmetabolized, it provides virtually no calories.

Real fat without the calories

Epogee is another new ingredient that has been approved by the FDA and is soon going to be flooding the market. This is a modified form of canola oil that has just 1/10th the calories of regular oil, and none of the digestive side effects of previous fat substitutes. Industry watchers are hailing this new ingredient as a game-changing development.

The trade name name Epogee is derived from the chemical name for this new ingredient, which is esterified propoxylated glycerol, or EPG. (Epogee sounds a lot better, doesn’t it?) And it’s really sort of brilliant.

Scientists have figured out a way to split a fat molecule right at the place where the fatty acids attach to the glycerol backbone. They then propoxylate the glycerol — slightly modifying the molecular structure — and reconnect it to the fatty acids. The result is a substance that looks, tastes, and acts just like oil. But because of that propoxyl link, it resists digestion in our intestinal tract and therefore contributes very few calories.

Studies have found no safety concerns or side effects. It does not, for example, cause loose stools, as Olestra notoriously did. And it doesn’t not appear to affect the absorption of fat soluble vitamins.

Consequence-free junk food?

So has science finally delivered the holy grail?  We now have the ability to make food that tastes like it’s full of real sugar and real fat but won’t raise our blood sugar or add unwanted calories to our diet.

But will consequence-free junk food really make our diets — or us — healthier? Or are we simply applying the principles of harm reduction to our food supply?

Harm reduction is an approach that aims to reduce the negative impact of risky behaviors. You hear it most often in the context of drug use.  If someone is using heroin, for example, our ultimate goal is to help them stop. But if we can’t, or until we can, let’s be sure that they have clean needles so that they don’t end up with a hepatitis infection on top of their heroin addiction.

A lot of public health experts would like to get people to eat less junk food and more nutritious foods. But if we can’t or until we can, maybe we should reduce the calories in those junk foods so that people don’t end up dealing with obesity on top of the effects of a nutrient poor diet.

It makes sense, but you can probably see why I’m not thrilled about this new development. Even if we take all the fat and calories out of our favorite sweets and snacks, it doesn’t make them (or us) healthier. It just makes them (and us) less unhealthy. Which is different.

If the fries are fat free, we’re less likely to choose a salad instead of fries.

The problem with sweets and snacks and fried foods isn’t just that they are contributing excess sugar and calories to our diets. They also often displace foods that actually nourish us.  And if we perceive them to be consequence-free, that effect might be magnified.

If the fries are fat free, we’re less likely to choose a salad instead of fries. If the cookies are made with calorie-free sugar, we might be less likely to reach for fresh fruit instead. But swapping your fries for a side salad or snacking on fresh fruit instead of cookies doesn’t just save you calories. It adds valuable nutrients to your diet.

The bottom line

Allulose and Epogee are definitely significant developments in food manufacturing. At this point, there doesn’t appear to be a big risk of direct harm from ingesting them. But I suggest we view them more in terms of harm reduction than as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

These ingredients may make it easier to enjoy some snacks or sweets without blowing your calorie budget. I’m sure I’ll be curious to try them myself when I have an opportunity. Just keep in mind that reduced-harm treats are still unlikely to contribute much positive nutrition to your diet. So enjoy them in moderation — and be sure they aren’t crowding healthier whole foods off of your plate.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. You can share them with me on my Nutrition Diva Facebook page or on the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206.


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