The FDA just approved a new sugar substitute—but is it healthier?

By Julia Ries | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published May 3, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Brazzein, a fruit-derived protein, has emerged as a potential sugar substitute, but more research is needed to understand how it compares to other natural and artificial sweeteners.

  • Americans consume an excessive amount of sugar, which poses significant health risks; however, some popular artificial sweeteners have been found to have their own risks, prompting interest in natural sweeteners.

  • This new, zero-calorie sweetener appears promising, despite questions regarding its safety, potential allergenicity, and impact on certain populations (such as children and pregnant individuals).

Americans love sugar. The average person consumes about 17 teaspoons of added sugars every day—roughly twice the recommended amount—according to the CDC.[] Sugar is tough to avoid: It is in our cereals, coffees, cookies, candies, juices, and soft drinks. Regularly consuming large amounts of sugar has been linked to various chronic health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.[]

In an effort to reduce the health risks associated with excessive sugar intake, multiple low-calorie sugar substitutes have hit the market. Artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, sucralose, and xylitol, are among the most popular sugar substitutes. But research has revealed that these products also have risks, driving an increased interest in all-natural sweeteners. 

Now, a new sweetener may start appearing in the food and beverage marketplace: brazzein.

What is brazzein?

The natural, sweet-tasting protein—which comes from a plant native to West Africa—appears to be safe, but there’s a lot we don’t know about it. While more research is needed to understand the effects of brazzein, health experts express cautious optimism.

“The epidemic of diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome requires some sort of solution. This could be a step in the right direction,” Nima Majlesi, DO, Director of Medical Toxicology at Staten Island University Hospital, tells MDLinx

Brazzein is a sweet-tasting protein found in the Pentadiplandra brazzeana Baillon fruit. It’s a potent sweetener, and only a very small amount is needed to sweeten foods and drinks. It’s estimated to be 2,000 times sweeter than sucrose.[]

It’s difficult and expensive to grow the plant, so manufacturers have looked at fermenting the protein using yeast,bacteria, and transgenic plants.[][] From there, the plant is isolated, purified, and characterized. Oobli is the first—and only—company in the United States that’s received approval from the FDA to produce the sweet protein.

According to the company, the sweet protein contains zero calories.[] A gram of sugar, for comparison, contains four calories. Following the March 2024 FDA approval, the sweet protein may soon be the new big sugar substitute in the US.

As one report published April 2024 argues, brazzein may be a promising sugar alternative that offers sweetness without the caloric burden.[] 

“I think having substitutes and replacements for added sugars that reduce energy and sugar intake and have no unintended impacts on health is something that would be welcomed by the public, scientists and clinicians,” Andrew Odegaard, MPH, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics with the University of California, Irvine Program in Public Health, tells MDLinx.

Comparing brazzein to competitors

Although artificial sweeteners, which generally contain fewer calories than cane sugar, are thought to suppress appetite and facilitate weight loss, they aren’t as safe as health experts originally thought.[]

Evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners can disrupt the gut microbiome, impact glucose homeostasis, and lead to weight gain.[] Furthermore, certain sweeteners, like aspartame, have been linked to a range of negative side effects, including gastrointestinal issues, mood changes, dizziness, and headaches. 

Brazzein has long been used as a natural sweetener by African natives, and, though the evidence is limited, it’s believed to be healthy and safe. Sweet proteins do not affect blood sugar levels, insulin, and the gut microbiome like artificial sweeteners, evidence suggests.[] In addition, they are more nutritious and do not appear to contribute to obesity. This may be “ideal for people who struggle with the taste of artificial sweeteners or want to avoid synthetic additives in their diet overall,” says Kate Donelan, MS, RD, a registered dietitian with Stanford Health Care.

That said, it’s important to recognize that the research on brazzein is still in the early phases. “The basic, animal-based research has provided enough evidence for it to be classified as GRAS [generally recognized as safe],” Odegaard says. GRAS indicates that a substance added to food has been adequately shown to be safe, according to the FDA. However, we don’t know much more than this. 

What we don’t know

Public health experts still have many questions about brazzein.

For example, some researchers suspect that the protein has allergenic potential. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether the sugar is safe for children and pregnant people, Dr. Majlesi says. And even though it doesn’t appear to impact the gut microbiome like commonly used artificial sweeteners, it could interfere with the microbiome in another way, he adds.

“I think the fact that it comes from a natural[ly] sourced fruit in Africa sometimes gives us a false sense of security,” Dr. Majlesi says. When used as a sweetener in the US, it will be processed—to an extent—and scientists question whether this might influence its health effects.

“We don’t have any evidence to know,” says Dr. Odegaard. The fermenting process needed to produce it on a large scale may increase the risk of contamination and product inconsistency, Donelan points out. “Testing would be necessary to ensure the safety and efficacy of the fermenting process,” she adds. 

Looking forward, Dr. Majlesi would like studies to compare brazzein to other safe sweeteners, such as thaumatin and, potentially, cane sugar. That research, however, will take time. “These will require longitudinal studies looking at use over a week, months, and potentially longer,” Dr. Majlesi says. 

What this means for you

The general consensus among health experts: While brazzein appears to be safe, more data is needed to fully understand its effects on humans. Until then, it’s best to proceed with caution and keep an eye on the new sweetener, which may soon be added to our favorite foods and drinks. Nonetheless, it’s an exciting development—one that may potentially reduce health risks, including metabolic diseases, that are linked to excessive sugar consumption. 

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