Leonard Bell, a professor in nutrition and food science, has been studying tagatose, an alternative sweetener for a few years.
Tagatose is a sugar that is similar in sweetness to table sugar, but our body does not treat it the same way as table sugar. Because of this, tagatose has prebiotic qualities, meaning it helps good bacteria grow in the digestive system. Bell said it may have immune enhancing capabilities.
Bell was introduced to tagatose by a student as it was coming out about five years ago. A year later, when a student was graduate student was looking for a research project, Bell suggested a study of tagatose.
While tagatose was not new at the time, no academics had yet studied it. All studies had been done in the food industry.
"I had one Ph.D student work on the question of what does tagatose do in cookies, looking at the dough, the cookies, sensory evaluation and whether people would like it or not," said Bell.
In order to use tagatose in foods, Bell and the student had to collect data on the properties in order to understand how it can be used and the stability of tagatose when heated.
"What we noticed in the study the Ph.D student did was that if we took out all the sugar and put all tagatose in, the cookie as very dark brown and had an off flavor," said Bell.
An undergraduate student was awarded an undergraduate research fellowship to look at flavor profiles involved in tagatose in a cookie, a muffin and a cake.
"What we wanted to do with the undergraduate project was put one percent tagatose in various baked goods and two percent tagatose in various baked goods," said Bell. "It had table sugar to make it a balanced flavor because you can't just make a cookie with one percent sugar."
The study had a control with no tagatose in the baked good, and Bell and the student used a combination of students and faculty around campus to taste test the three different baked goods to see if they could determine which baked good contained tagatose.
The study showed that people could not tell the difference between the control, the one percent tagatose and the two percent tagatose baked good.
While tagatose goes unnoticed in small amounts, the properties change when a complete substitution is made. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates how tagatose can be used. Tagatose is limited to two percent in the United States.
In Europe, many products come with tagatose in them because the European Union has less restriction on tagatose.
Trace amounts of tagatose can be found in dairy products. However, it is not economical to extract the tagatose, like it is to extract sugar from sources such as sugar cane.
Another difference between sugar and tagatose is the caloric content. Table sugar has four calories per gram, while the FDA recognizes one and a half calories per gram in tagatose.