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Skidmore College

How to sweeten your coffee

August 6, 2013

How to take your coffee

A comparison of sugar with Sweet'n Lo, Equal and other artificial sweeteners was one of 62 topics on which students presented at last week's final session of the Student Faculty Summer Research Program.

August 5, 2013

The next time you choose an artificial sweetener, you may want to rethink the Sweet‘n Lo.

Maura LaBrecque
Maura LaBrecque'14 discovered
that most artificial sweeteners
don't replicate the taste of
sugar very well.

That’s what research conducted this summer by Maura LaBrecque ’14 suggests. Along with 84 other Skidmore students who participated in the College’s Student Faculty Summer Research Program, LaBrecque reported the results of her work at the program’s closing session last week.

Nearly 50 faculty mentors attended the 62 PowerPoint and poster presentations, which ranged across such topics as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the Vietnamese stock market, the role of food in culture, and the development of a quick, inexpensive test for malaria and food allergies.

“It just gets stronger and stronger,” marveled Sara Lee Schupf ’62, trustee and creator of the $1.1 million Schupf Scholars Program, which focuses on interdisciplinary projects and to female students in which women are underrepresented. “These students are amazing.”

For rising seniors, the summer experience – which was five weeks for some and eight for others -- was an opportunity to get a running start on research they’ll continue through the year and submit as senior theses. Most of the students will present their work again next month at St. Lawrence University, host of the 2013 New York Six Undergraduate Research Conference, and many ultimately will see their work published.

Jody Ann Facey
Jody-Ann Facey studied a synthetic
chemical, 18-MC, that might
someday be used to treat
drug addiction.

Robert Hallock, visiting assistant professor in neuroscience, said his students have published six or seven papers in the last year. He’s confident that Maura LaBrecque, who worked in his lab this summer, will publish her work as well, perhaps in The Journal of Chemical Senses, "which deals a lot with this type of data.”


What inspired LaBrecque to study artificial sweeteners?

“You see diet sodas and diet foods everywhere, so I just thought it would be interesting to see what I’m really putting in my coffee and what these artificial sweeteners would taste like if there were no coffee or tea with it,” she explained.

Having performed some early comparative testing in Professor Hallock’s perceptions class last spring, LaBrecque organized a full trial with a panel of 17 Skidmore students. Administering unmarked samples of real sugar and four artificial sweeteners – Sweet‘n Lo, Equal, Truvia, and Xylitol – in varying concentrations in solution, she asked the students to rate them by their intensity of sweetness and bitterness.

The results were surprising.

Only one artificial sweetener – Xylitol – came in with both sweetness and bitterness ratings that approximated sugar’s. The others differed substantially – especially Sweet‘n Lo, which the student panel found to be markedly higher than sugar on both the sweetness and bitterness scales.

Spencer Berstler developed a
project-based lab curriculum aimed
at better teaching concepts in
organic chemistry

“It really packs a punch,” said LaBrecque.

LaBrecque said she now advises friends to avoid Sweet‘n Lo “because of the bitterness component and because it doesn’t really replicate the taste components of sugar.”

But it may still be the best choice for some people, she acknowledges.

“My grandmother loves it,” she smiled.

Watch for more stories in coming weeks about work by students who participated in the Student Faculty Summer Research Program.

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