Which E‑number does sugar have?

Why is sugar natural but not steviol glycosides? Both are extracted from plants in about the same way.

20 June 2019 •

Steviol gly­co­sides, which are extract­ed from the ste­via plant, has an E‑number. But reg­u­lar sug­ar, which is extract­ed in much the sim­i­lar way does not. Is this a problem?

A com­mon argu­ment to avoid sweet­en­ers is that they are “unnat­ur­al”. But ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides are just as nat­ur­al, or indeed as unnat­ur­al, as reg­u­lar sug­ar. Yet ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides are con­signed to the mire of E‑numbers. Sugar isn’t.

Lack of understanding

Of course habit plays a role. What we have eat­en since we were lit­tle does­n’t feel as scary as some­thing “new”. Actually it does­n’t real­ly mat­ter what that “new” is, the old still feels safer to eat. And when red flags are raised for reg­u­lar sug­ar many decide to exclude every­thing sweet from their diet – among this also ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides, despite the fact that they don’t have any calories.

Those who choose sug­ar because it’s “nat­ur­al” but reject ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides because they’re “chem­i­cal” do not under­stand the mat­ter. They could use a quick les­son in how both sub­stances are extract­ed, from sug­ar cane or sug­ar beets, and from ste­via leaves respectively.

This is how sugar is extracted

Let’s start with sug­ar, extract­ed from sug­ar beets or sug­ar cane.

First, the beets or sug­ar canes are chopped or crushed before they are boiled. The infu­sion is called raw juice and con­tains sucrose but also plant pig­ments, gelati­nous sub­stances and oth­er polyphe­nols. Much of this floats to the sur­face or sinks to the bot­tom when milk of lime and car­bon diox­ide is added.

The raw juice is fil­tered to become thin juice which con­tains about 16% sucrose. The remain­ing prod­uct is thick juice, which has a sug­ar con­tent of more than 70%.

To fur­ther evap­o­rate any water con­tent from the thick juice it is heat­ed sev­er­al times. During this process a lit­tle sug­ar is added which aids the form­ing of sug­ar crys­tals. The result is a thick mass con­sist­ing of sug­ar crys­tals and brown syrup with is sep­a­rat­ed by a cen­trifuge. What remains is sug­ar crys­tals which are dried, cooled and packaged.

I’m not say­ing sug­ar isn’t nat­ur­al, but I think that this process is worth remem­ber­ing when we cov­er how ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides are extracted.

This is how steviol glycosides are extracted

Like sug­ar, ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides are also extract­ed from a plant – stevia.

The plant is dried and the leaves are sep­a­rat­ed from the stems. These are then soaked in hot water. The infu­sion con­tains ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides, but also plant pig­ment, gelati­nous sub­stances, oil, wax, pro­teins as well as tan­nic acid and oth­er polyphe­nols which are sep­a­rat­ed through dif­fer­ent filters.

The puri­fied infu­sion is poured through a porous mate­r­i­al which catch­es the ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides but lets the water through. To remove the ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides from the porous mate­r­i­al it is rinsed with pure alcohol.

The alco­hol is removed in a mem­brane fil­ter and through dis­til­la­tion. What remains is a sweet syrup from which most of the remain­ing flu­id is squeezed out before the left­overs are dried to become ste­vi­ol gly­co­side crystals.

The crys­tals are then dis­solved in alco­hol again and the process is repeat­ed until you get the desired puri­ty before they are dried and packaged.

Which E‑number would sugar get today?

I’m sor­ry to get so tech­ni­cal, and I promise not to test you on all the details. I just want­ed to point out the similarities.

The extrac­tion process­es are sim­i­lar to each oth­er, but only one of the prod­ucts is con­sid­ered nat­ur­al. The oth­er must be labelled with an E‑number.

But what would hap­pen if sug­ar had to go through the approval process that new food sub­stances are sub­ject­ed to today? Which E‑number would it get then?

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