The study, conducted by Ohio State University food scientists and presented last week at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Atlanta, tested consumer perceptions of 13 different sweeteners, including sucralose, aspartame and saccharin.
"So many sugar substitutes also have unpleasant tastes," said Jeannine Delwiche, a co-author of the study. "Understanding how people perceive these tastes may help create a sugar substitute that is more palatable. That ultimately means making tastier products with fewer calories."
The researchers said their goal was not to determine which product is the best sweetener but to examine the factors that influence consumer liking of various sweeteners.
The scientists asked 30 college students to rate the different sweeteners and sweet substances they were given based on how much bitter, sour and metallic taste they perceived in each substance.
An equal level of sweetness was obtained in all the substances, which were then administered in glasses of water to the blindfolded students.
Unsurprisingly, sugar- or sucrose- was rated highest.
"Sugar is the gold standard for companies that make artificial sweeteners but it's packed with calories. Most of these other substances have few to no calories," said Delwiche.
After sugar, participants found sucralose- marketed under the brand name Splenda- the most acceptable alternative. The researchers said this was because of a lack of noticeable sour and bitter tastes in this sweetener.
Xylitol, used primarily in chewing gum, came next in line of preference. Aspartame- sold under the brand names Equal and Nutra Sweet- and fructose were also highly rated.
The least liked sweeteners were stevia, saccharin, D-tryptophan and glycine.
"Most of these last four substances have pronounced bitter, sour or metallic tastes," Delwiche said.
The rest of the substances - thaumatin, cyclamate, acesulfame potassium and glucose - were ranked in between the most-preferred and the least-liked compounds.
But although the results showed that the best-liked sweeteners had no, or next to no, sour, bitter or metallic tastes, the researchers also found that taste perception differed amongst the participants, meaning that not everyone tasted the same substance in the same way.
This comes down to the fact that the population is divided into 'non-tasters,' 'tasters,' and 'super tasters,' a means to categorize consumer levels of taste sensitivity according to their Prop status. This status is set by people's ability to taste the compound Propylthiouracil, a synthesized substance that is not detectable to everyone.
"We are gaining more and more understanding of how sweetness works when it gets to the taste receptors," Delwiche told FoodNavigator-USA. She added that she plans to conduct further work to determine what drives individual differences in taste perception.
She has already identified three primary factors that have a significant impact in taste perception: the ability to detect a substance, consumer habits- or what consumers are used to tasting- and a 'personality factor', which is determined by whether people seek or avoid novel tastes.