Your questions answered
A widely discussed topic, low calorie sweeteners are the subject of vast questioning, misunderstanding and speculative assumptions. As such, this section addresses the questions that are often asked around low calories sweeteners in respect of:
- Foods and beverages
- Dental health
- Weight control
Sweet means "pleasing" to the taste and sweetness is the pleasure or enjoyment that comes from food that tastes sweet. The desire for the pleasure of sweetness has a strong influence on what people choose to eat and drink.
Throughout history people have sought out foods with sweet taste. For example, drawings on the walls of Egyptian tombs show bee-keepers collecting honey and that sugar cane was grown in India some 2000 years ago.
Today, sucrose, or table sugar, is the taste standard by which all other sweeteners are measured. Some sweeteners, like sugar, contain calories. And some are low calorie or calorie-free.
People prefer foods and beverages that taste sweet. And they tend to avoid things that taste bitter.
This preference for sweetness begins at birth. Early man may have relied on this innate preference for survival: sweet fruits, berries and vegetables tend to be safe to eat, and sometimes bitter foods are dangerous to eat.
The natural desire for sweetness and the consumption habits that come from our culture and experience, all influence what people choose to eat and drink throughout life.
Sweet foods provide pleasure, and they also help improve food acceptance and palatability. With the abundance of affordable food in many parts of the world today, people often eat too much food and can therefore consume too many calories.
Fortunately, there are several ways that sweet foods can fit into a calorie-balanced and healthy lifestyle. Using low calorie sweeteners is one way that people can have the pleasure of sweetness without too many calories.
A healthy diet provides all of the essential nutrients that your body needs to promote and support a fit and active life and reduce your risk of chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes or cancer.
A healthy diet includes a variety of foods: cereals and grains; fruits and vegetables; protein foods such as meats, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and vegetables; milk and other dairy products like cheese or yoghurt; and small amounts of fats and oils. A diet that includes moderate amounts of sweet foods adds positive value to the eating experience by improving taste and palatability.
Low calorie sweeteners provide a sweet taste without calories, or with very few calories. Most low calorie sweeteners are not digested by the body and provide no calories. An exception is aspartame, which is metabolised naturally. But since aspartame is approximately 200 times sweeter than sucrose, only a tiny amount of aspartame (1/10 of a kilocalorie) is needed to equal the sweetness of a teaspoon of sugar (16 kilocalories).
Low calorie sweeteners are also called:
- "non-nutritive sweeteners"
- "intense sweeteners"
- "high intensity sweeteners"
- "high potency sweeteners”
- "alternative sweeteners"
Low calorie sweeteners provide consumers with calorie-smart choices that give pleasure. Low calorie sweeteners give weight-conscious and calorie-conscious consumers products that satisfy their desire for sweet pleasure without extra calories.
Low calorie sweeteners have been shown to play a useful role in helping people lose and maintain weight as part of a fit and healthy lifestyle. Preventing obesity is an important factor in reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes or non-insulin dependent diabetes (NIDDM).
Low calorie sweeteners are also beneficial in the management of and the reduction of dental caries (tooth decay). Since low calorie sweeteners cannot be used by oral bacteria that cause tooth decay, foods and beverages sweetened with low calorie sweeteners aid in the promotion of dental health.
Low calorie sweeteners are also used in oral hygiene products for the same reason.
The wide variety of reduced-calorie and light products that consumers enjoy today would not be possible without low calorie sweeteners.
Calorie-conscious consumers savour sweet pleasures from:
- Soft drinks and table-top sweeteners (the biggest applications of low calorie sweeteners)
- Dairy products such as yoghurt and ice cream
- Chewing gums
- Condiments such as salad dressings, mustards and sauce
- And many other products including chewable multi-vitamins and dietary pharmaceutical products
Sweeteners for individual use at home are called table-top sweeteners. They are supplied in four different forms:
- Sweetener tablets
- Spray-dried granulated (so-called spoon-for-spoon)
- Concentrated powder sachets
One tablet or powder sachet of low calorie sweetener normally corresponds to one teaspoon or one cube of sugar. Two or three drops of a liquid low calorie sweetener corresponds to one teaspoon of sugar. And typically, one spoon of granulated low calorie sweetener provides as much sweetness as one spoon of sugar.
Granulated sweetener is a special variant demonstrating the versatility of sweet alternatives. Due to its loose, fine, granule nature, granulated low calorie sweeteners are especially suitable for sweetening cereals, fruits and desserts and can also be used in cooking and baking. Their energy content is up to 90 per cent lower than that of sugar.
In jams and marmalades, low calorie sweeteners do not have the conserving effect of sugar, so energy-reduced products have to be kept in the refrigerator once they are opened. On the other hand, however, sweeteners prevent the undesired fermentation often caused by sugar in marinades and dressings.
Each sweetener has its own unique taste profile and technical characteristics. Sweeteners can be used alone or in combination with each other. With so many low calorie sweeteners available today, it is now possible to choose the individual or combined sweeteners that are best suited to a particular product or a particular taste in the case of branded table-top sweeteners.
Dental caries is the eating away (demineralisation) of tooth enamel by acid in the mouth. Acid is produced by oral bacteria that ferment carbohydrate foods (sugars and starches). If people practice good dental health (maintaining oral hygiene, eating a healthy diet), saliva neutralises the acid and repairs the tooth's enamel.
Tooth decay only occurs if the repair process doesn't keep up with the demineralisation process.
Scientific studies suggest that fluoride is the most important aid to prevent dental caries. It increases the resistance of tooth enamel to decay and helps speed up repair. The addition of fluoride to community water supplies and fluoride-containing mouthwashes has greatly reduced the incidence of tooth decay in industrialised countries.
Low calorie sweeteners help prevent dental caries because they are not fermentable by oral bacteria. So, they produce no acid and cannot promote dental decay.
Because low calorie sweeteners cannot be fermented by oral bacteria and do not produce acids that erode tooth enamel, they cannot cause dental decay.
In addition, laboratory research has shown that some low calorie sweeteners directly inhibit dental decay by interfering with the metabolism of carbohydrate by oral bacteria; they may limit the growth of decay-causing oral bacteria or reduce the amount of acid that the bacteria produce. So, foods and beverages containing these low calorie sweeteners support dental health.
Yes, low calorie sweeteners do not cause decay. By improving palatability, they encourage the use of toothpastes, mouthwashes and fluoride supplements that aid dental health.
Weighing too much can increase the risk of developing hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, coronary heart disease and certain types of cancer and gallbladder disease.
Modest weight loss can:
- Lower blood pressure
- Improve blood sugar control
- Reduce blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides
People feel good when they have control over their weight. They exhibit more confidence, self-esteem and a sense of well-being.
A reduced calorie intake together with an increase in physical exercise is essential for weight loss. In the management of the overall calorie intake, low calorie sweeteners can play an important role. They provide people with a wide variety of foods and beverages that taste good with lower calorie content.
To lose weight, a person has to eat fewer calories than his/her body burns. Low calorie sweeteners reduce calorie intake.
Replacing 4tsp of sugar per day with a low calorie sweetener, in tea and coffee for example, saves an average amount of energy per year equal to 3kg of fat tissue.
Studies have shown that a small reduction in body weight can substantially reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and cancer.
Low calorie sweeteners do help in weight control. They do not stimulate appetite or hunger.
Numerous studies have shown that replacing sugar with low calorie sweeteners leads to a decreased or unchanged sensation of hunger in the short-term (meal to meal). Short-term hunger is most strongly affected by volume and fibre: drinking non-caloric or reduced-calorie liquids and eating high-fibre foods is the best way to reduce hunger between meals.
Internationally eminent scientists such as Andrew Renwick, Ph.D., University of Southampton, and Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, have reviewed all available research data on low calorie sweeteners, appetite and hunger. They conclude that sweeteners do not promote hunger and actually lead to decreased energy intakes.
Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., University of Michigan (Nutrition Reviews), reviewed numerous studies that have investigated this question and reported that there is no evidence that the addition of sweet taste is a stimulus to hunger or the desire to eat. And although low calorie sweeteners are not appetite suppressants, their ability to increase the palatability of low calorie foods may actually promote a person's ability to stick to a low calorie diet.
A number of studies, including those by Drewnowski et al. and Raben et al., show that the use of low calorie sweeteners contributes to weight control.
Evidence shows that the calories saved by using low calorie sweeteners at one meal are not made up for by eating more at the next meal. Of course, a person wishing to lose weight has to make a conscious effort to this end to obtain a lasting result.
The growing availability of good-tasting, low calorie foods and beverages makes healthy eating easier than ever before. And with a wider choice of food, there is a better chance that a diet will be satisfying and successful in the long-term.
Results of a clinical study by Blackburn et al. (Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre, Harvard Medical School) suggest that low calorie sweeteners (aspartame) may facilitate the long-term maintenance of reduced body weight when used as part of a multidisciplinary weight control programme that includes diet, exercise and behaviour modification.
Higher amounts of sweetener consumption also led to greater amounts of weight loss during the weight-loss programme. Low calorie sweeteners may aid long-term weight management by satisfying the desire for sweetness and controlling appetite without over-consumption of sucrose and/or fat. They may also have reduced the desire for sweets simply by providing a feeling of sweet satisfaction.
Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that results from the body's inability to make or use insulin. Insulin moves sugar in the blood into cells where it is converted into energy for life. People who have diabetes are now advised to eat a "normal" balanced diet that is rich in carbohydrates, including moderate amounts of sugar. But since an important part of diabetes management is to maintain blood sugar levels within healthy limits, low calorie sweeteners help by providing sweet taste without increasing the blood sugar levels.
When overweight or obese people who have diabetes lose even small amounts of weight, their blood sugar improves.
By reducing their calorie intake, low calorie sweeteners aid both weight management and diabetic control.
There is wide consensus among health groups that low calorie sweeteners are safe to use by people who have diabetes as they do not affect blood sugar or insulin levels. This means low calorie sweeteners give people with diabetes broader food choices by allowing them to enjoy sweet foods and drinks.
Numerous studies have consistently shown that low calorie sweeteners do not affect blood sugar or insulin levels.
Their effect on insulin secretion and blood sugar levels has been studied by Brigitte Härtel et al., European Society August Bier for Ecology and Medicine, University of Hannover, Germany. The study's aim was to find out whether sweeteners (in general) have an impact on cephalic responses and on insulin and blood sugar levels.
The study showed that "solutions of sweeteners do not cause any cephalic insulin secretion, that they have no impact on glucose levels and finally provide no evidence of a hunger mechanism based on a stimulus from sweeteners".
Low calorie sweeteners provide people who have diabetes with a wide variety of good tasting foods and beverages. A more varied and more palatable diet makes it easier to comply with diet guidelines that improve health, nutrition and blood sugar control. People who have diabetes may feel isolated and alienated because in some ways their lifestyle is different from that of other people. Being able to have "normal" foods adds to their quality of life. This is especially helpful to children who want to be like their friends in every way.
All approved sweeteners are safe for use by the consumer. Safety is the number one concern of low calorie sweetener manufacturers, food and beverage producers, regulatory bodies and consumers. A newly discovered sweetener goes through years of research and development to ensure that it's safe.
Before a sweetener comes to market and is available to consumers, it must get the approval of regulatory authorities (governments). In giving approval, these authorities rely on the safety evaluations of independent scientific advisory bodies such as:
- The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), previously the European Commission's Scientific Committee for Food (SCF)
- The United States Food and Drug Association (FDA)
- The United Nations' Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA)
The independent experts who serve on these advisory bodies scrutinise and evaluate data about the sweetener and its uses to ensure they are safe.
Safety studies may take from seven to fifteen years, and the regulatory process may take a further four to seven years.
The Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI), expressed on a body weight basis, is the amount of a sweetener and any other food additive that can safely be consumed on a daily basis over a person's lifetime. The concept was developed by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and it was later endorsed by the Scientific Committee for Food (SCF) of the European Commission, now the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
JECFA defines ADI levels as: "An estimate of the amount of a food additive, expressed on a body weight basis that can be ingested daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk."
The ADI is in fact a safe intake level. If an individual occasionally exceeds the ADI, this is of no consequence if balanced by periods when the ADI is not consumed. Individuals who persistently exceed the ADI have a lower but adequate margin of safety. For example, someone who constantly consumed twice the ADI would still benefit from a safety factor of 50 instead of 100. Therefore the ADI should be regarded as a workable benchmark to evaluate exposure and for regulators to establish permitted use levels of food additives.
Sweeteners as used in foods and drinks today are safe. When approving a sweetener for use in foods and drinks, the regulator takes into account the estimated overall intake as well as the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) which includes a typical safety factor of 100.
This means that even if people occasionally consume more sweeteners than the ADI, it is still safe, as the ADI expresses the amount that a person can consume every day during a lifetime. To make sure that the levels of intake do not exceed the acceptable level, consumption studies are carried out by governments and industry.
These studies have shown that consumers generally do not exceed the ADI. However, exceeding the ADI occasionally presents no health concern.
Regulatory approval differs from country to country. But the goal of "safety" is the same in all countries. To achieve this goal, governments use the safety evaluations of their own scientific advisory bodies or the United Nations' Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).
For example, the European Commission relies on the advice of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – previously the European Scientific Committee for Food (SCF) – and the United States relies on the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Approval is the authorisation by regulatory authorities for a specific non calorie or low calorie sweetener to be used by the consumer as either a table-top sweetener or an ingredient in specific foods at specified maximum amounts. Approval must be obtained before a sweetener can be sold for use in foods or beverages.
Approval is granted on the basis of safety assessments and the proof of technological need. It is granted only when regulators are satisfied that the product is safe. Regulators also establish levels of Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI). Low calorie sweeteners are among the most thoroughly tested food additives in use today.
For example, the European Sweeteners Directive (94/35/EC), a regulation adopted in 1994 by the European Council and Parliament and now applied in all 25 Member States of the European Union (EU), identifies the sweeteners that are approved for use in the EU, the foodstuffs in which they can be used and their maximum use level. To be approved, food additives such as low calorie sweeteners must perform a useful purpose and be safe.