I have a sweet tooth but I prefer something NASA sweet.

Space. Sweeteners. Stereoisomers.  And the inside story of how discoveries took off.


NASA's experiments using enantiomers to deduce life on Mars led to the the development of sweeteners

1-Minute NomNom

If you want to lose weight, go to space. Not because it is weightless, but because that is where you find sweeteners.

chocolate bar

No, not this Mars.

That is precisely what happened for a NASA space mission to Mars. As part of the R&D for that mission, Dr Gilbert Levin was interested to use the properties of enantiomers to deduce if biological life existed on Mars.

What are enantiomers? When two chemical compounds have the same chemical formula but have different structures, they are called isomers of each other i.e. same formula, different arrangement.

sweeteners take advantage of the property of stereoisomers and enantiomers

D-glucose and L-glucose are examples of stereoisomers and enantiomers

When this difference in structure is in 3D-space , they are called stereoisomers i.e. same formula, different 3D arrangement. When two stereoisomers are a mirror image of each other, they are called enantiomers.

Dr Levin wanted to use the property that while…

“…two enantiomers of a sugar molecule will respond identically in a chemical reaction, they will not have the same reaction in biological [environments]” (Source: NASA)


Enantiomers were used in an experiment to deduce if biological life existed on Mars - the experiment did not work but the science led to the R&D of sweeteners

This Mars.

The enantiomers could thus be sent on the space mission; when it landed on Mars, how the two enantiomers responded could help NASA deduce if biological life existed on Mars.

The experiment unfortunately did not work as planned but Dr Levin used the innovation to develop a low-calorie sweetener, that is used to make low-calorie soft drinks and diary products.

sweeteners are used in foods such as soda drinks

The sweeteners worked by taking advantage of the phenomenon that our body’s enzymes cannot react with the chemically-created enantiomer of naturally occurring glucose (remember the bit about how enantiomers have different reactions in a biological environment?).

Our body will thus flush it out (chomp into the isomer science in the 1-Minute NomNom “Mirror, mirror van der Waals,  who is the sweetest of them all?“).

Feed Me!

Like sweeteners, baby formula was an innovation arising from NASA research and the space programThe space program was a great spur to innovation in many fields. Besides sweeteners, other innovations included baby formula, tires, and artificial heart pumps! Read more about them and tell us which space-related innovation you like best and why!


Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 6.02.39 pmLike this? Be our sweeteners by liking me to discover more. All you need is a minute a day to explore the world’s marvels through the phenomenon of food!

photos: in order – istockphoto/Joel Sorrellcelafon; depositphotos/radub85Helen_FOtnaYdurFreerLaw

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