Is this new low-cal natural sweetener safe?

Have you heard of allulose? If not, don't worry—the name will soon be everywhere. It's a new, super-low-calorie natural sweetener that's being rolled out by the makers of Splenda under the alluringly exotic name Dolcia Prima (and apparently it tastes pretty frickin' good).

Unveiled at the annual Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) meeting this summer, allulose is a sweetener derived from fermented corn. (#ICYWW: Tate & Lyle, the only company that makes allulose commercially, says its corn is non-GMO.) Chemically, it's almost identical to sucrose (table sugar) and fructose. But that "almost" is key, because the tiny structural differences make allulose mostly undigestible by our bodies, explains Kantha Shelke, PhD, an IFT spokesperson and founder of the food science and research firm Corvus Blue. And as a result, it delivers 90 percent fewer calories than sugar.

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Even so, it behaves just like sucrose in the kitchen. Unlike, say, stevia drops, allulose has the same bulk and texture as table sugar. And since it browns, it makes baked goods look delicious and caramelized instead of anemic and unappetizing. But because it's only 70 percent as sweet as sugar, it can't be subbed directly in recipes.

"For the moment, we're looking at ways to combine allulose with high potency sweeteners [like stevia], so you can get a cup for cup replacement for sugar," Shelke said.

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Of course, there's a but. The reason allulose isn't digested is because our bodies lack the necessary enzymes to break the stuff down once it reaches the gut. Which means that if you down more than a few tablespoons, you'll probably be in for some major stomach issues, Shelke said. Think: bloating, gas, and the same general abdominal awfulness that would happen if someone with lactose intolerance chugged a big glass of milk.

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That's not all. Allulose is "generally recognized as safe" but considering that the FDA makes GRAS designations based on studies conducted by the manufacturer, that in itself isn't particularly reassuring. And experts like Shelke agree that more research is needed before we can really understand how allulose affects the body.

"We know that what we eat and the amounts affect our microbiome. Those effects can be immediate, like diarrhea, or they can be longer-term and cause other issues," Shelke said.

As to what those issues might be? "Only time, careful observation, and transparency can tell," she said.

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Put more directly: If at any point in the near future, you see a commercial with a slim, bikini-clad woman happily sprinkling Dolcia Prima into her iced tea while she eats a cupcake by the pool (because with a name like that, you totally know it's gonna happen), you might be better off just changing the channel.

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