An Inside Look at the Chemistry Behind Sweet Defeat
How many steps does it take to make a Sweet Defeat lozenge? That’s not the first line of a joke; it’s what I learned from visiting the Sweet Defeat research lab at New York Medical College, a short train ride north of New York City And it turns out, the answer was a lot more complicated than I expected.
The lab is where Cara Cesario, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of Sweet Defeat, spent the last four years developing and refining the process to create the minty lozenge that stops sugar cravings. Sparkling clean and white, with lots of stainless steel surfaces covered in glass beakers and fancy equipment, the space is what you’d expect a chemistry lab to look like. And Cara looks like a chemist, wearing a white lab coat, safety glasses, and chic black latex gloves while she demonstrates the process for me.
An Ancient Herb for Modern Times
First, she explains a little background about the ingredients, especially the most important component of Sweet Defeat, Gymnema sylvestre. Gymnema sylvestre is a leafy vine that has been used for hundreds of years in Ayurvedic medicine. In Hindi, the plant is known as “destroyer of sugar” because one of its interesting effects is its ability to temporarily block the taste of sweetness. Have some gymnema and you can’t taste sugar or artificial sweeteners for up to an hour—and it makes you not even want to eat sweets.
But gymnema tastes really bitter, and you need to have a lot for it to be effective. Cara’s challenge was to find a method that isolated the gymnemic acids, the molecules of Gymnema sylvestre that blocks the taste of sweetness, and end up with a purified, potent extract.
The Purification Process
Cara shows me the gymnema leaf. It looks like dried oregano or basil, but more finely ground. In a beaker, she dissolves the powdered gymnema in water, then pours in another clear liquid and shakes it together. Everything turns dark green, but over time, the two liquid separate, like oil and vinegar in a salad dressing. When we look closer, one layer looks darker than the other.
“The molecules have to decide where to go: are they more attracted to the top layer or the bottom layer?” Cara explains. She takes a pipette and dots filter paper with each of the liquids along with a reference standard to test them against in a process called paper chromatography. “I think of this like making chicken noodle soup, where gymnemic acids are the noodles,” Cara says. “To figure out if there are noodles in the soup, I need to recognize what a noodle is. The reference standard is the noodle, and I’m comparing the others to see if they match up.”
“See where this dark patch lines up?” Cara points to some particularly blue blobs on the paper chromatography. “Those are the gymnemic acids.” One of the liquid layers obviously has a lot of the gymnemic acids, the other liquid layer barely any. She keeps the gymnemic concentrated layer, the one dissolved in water, and discards the other one.
Purer and Purer
But the concentrate still has other stuff in there, not just gymnemic acids. So Cara mixes in activated charcoal—people sometimes take it for stomach aches or use it to brush their teeth—then pours it into a funnel lined with a filter. All the green stuff attaches to the charcoal, which gets caught in the filter. What drips out is an almost-clear liquid. From there, Cara repeats the solvent-separation process from the first step a dozen different ways, getting a higher concentration of gymnemic acids every time.
“We’re like a good steakhouse: we take the center cut and discard the rest to increase the quality of the product,” she explains. One part of the process uses food-grade resins that are used in sugar refinement and for manufacturing pharmaceuticals: “It was important to us to use super-safe materials,” Cara says, “and that took some time to figure out.” That’s reason why the product took four years to develop, to get an ultra-pure product that is held to the highest standards.
I won’t go into details on the rest of the steps, but they involved a fancy machine that left pure gymnemic acids behind as a powder, and an oven that dried the powder even more. Finally, I watched her work a tablet press, combining the other natural ingredients— zinc, sorbitol, mint, and spirulina (a superfood found in smoothies)—with the purified gymnemic acids. Voila, a Sweet Defeat lozenge is born.
The Finished Lozenge
It takes the equivalent of 200 leaves of gymnema to make just one little Sweet Defeat tablet. She pulls up a computer screen to show a chromatogram, comparing Sweet Defeat with other products that contain gymnema. The Sweet Defeat reading has massive peaks in the middle, like someone’s heart rate when sprinting—those are the 20-plus different types of gymnemic acids. The other product barely has any blips, with a much lower concentration.
So much time and care goes into the production of each lozenge. The same steps that Cara showed me gets done on a larger scale in a European manufacturing facility. Instead of a few cups of a solution, they’re working with thousands of liters. Instead of the sieve that looks like it could be used in my kitchen to sift flour, they work with huge sieves several feet wide.
The first time I tried a Sweet Defeat, I thought of it as magic. Now that I’ve peeked behind the curtain, I’m only more in awe of the purity and integrity of the product.