Low calorie sweeteners’ safety, use and benefits explained by experts

Take-home messages from the Ibero-American Nutrition Foundation webinar


  • Sweetness liking is innate and decreases from childhood into adulthood.
  • Low calorie sweeteners are added instead of sugar in foods and drinks in order to provide sweet taste with little or no calories. Very small amounts (milligrams) are used to replace grams of sugar and in order to give the desired sweetness.
  • The safety of low calorie sweeteners is repeatedly and extensively assessed by food safety regulatory bodies globally. These agencies consistently confirm that approved low calorie sweeteners are safe.
  • The consumption of low calorie sweeteners can help in reducing calorie and sugar intake, and in turn, in glucose and weight control, when used to replace sugar in the context of a structured diet plan.
  • Based on available research, low calorie sweeteners’ intake at doses relevant to human consumption does not negatively affect the gut microbiota.

In times when online information on nutrition topics may be conflicting and confusing, healthcare professionals should look for reliable scientific information and turn to credible sources such as regulatory authorities and health-related organisations that base their conclusions on the totality of available evidence-based information. This need was emphasised by experts speaking at a webinar on low calorie sweeteners organised by the Ibero-American Nutrition Foundation (FINUT) on 10th April 2019. Seven academic experts from Spain and countries of Latin America presented the latest evidence on sweet taste properties and characteristics as well as on the safety, use and role of low calorie sweeteners in weight management and glucose control.

The current article aims to present to you the key take-home messages of each speaker talk, as presented at the FINUT webinar on low calorie sweeteners.

Prof. Emilio Martínez de Victoria, Professor of Physiology, University of Granada, Spain:

Sweetness is one of the “basic tastes”. The human body “recognises” sweetness with the help of the sweet taste receptors that are located in the oral cavity and are responsible for the initial detection of a sweet tasting stimulus. These receptors respond to various sweet tasting molecules including sugars, polyols and low calorie sweeteners. Today we know that sweet taste receptors are also present in other organs of the human body.

Liking of sweet taste is innate. We are born with a liking for sweetness, which decreases from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood. The higher sweetness preference during childhood may reflect the higher energy and nutritional need of young children during periods of maximal growth.

Currently, evidence does not support that exposure to sweet taste leads to a heightened appetite and/or consumption of sugar. What available research shows is that, after having eaten something sweet, the momentary pleasantness and choice of more sweet-tasting foods is reduced, a phenomenon known as “sensory specific satiety”.

Prof. Adriana Gámbaro, Professor and Director, Department of Food Science and Technology, Universidad de la República, Uruguay:

Human taste sensations can be divided into five primary or “basic” qualities: bitter, sour, salty, sweet, and umami or savoury, with the latter being a recent addition. There is large inter-individual variation in sweetness perception. Generally, sweet taste perception is instant.

Sensory evaluation is defined as “a scientific discipline used to invoke, measure, analyse, and interpret reactions to characteristics of foods and materials as they are perceived by the senses of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing”. There exist different methods that have been developed and are used in sensory evaluation. The more analytical methods include the participation of individuals who have advanced sensory capabilities compared to the rest of the population and are capable of identifying small differences in taste, including sweetness intensity.

Dr Rebeca López García, Toxicologist, Logre International Food Science Consulting, Mexico:

Low calorie sweeteners are food additives that are added to a variety of foods and beverages in place of sugars to provide a desired sweet taste with little or no calories. All low calorie sweeteners, either of natural or synthetic origin, have undergone the same extensive safety evaluation process before they are approved for use in foods and drinks.

As food additives, low calorie sweeteners are added to food products for a specific technological purpose, i.e. to provide sweet taste. Their use alone is not intended to have any health effect. When used to replace sugars in the diet, low calorie sweeteners can bring benefits linked to the sugar reduction and, in turn, help reduce calorie intake and thus in weight control.

Prof. Cecilia de Figueiredo Toledo, Professor, Department of Food Engineering, Universidad Estatal de Campinas, Brazil:

The safety of approved low calorie sweeteners has been repeatedly assessed and confirmed by risk assessment regulatory and scientific bodies globally, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/ World Health Organization (WHO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

During the evaluation and approval process, the risk assessment experts of the food safety agencies establish an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for each approved sweetener, which is the amount of an approved food additive that can be consumed daily in the diet, over a lifetime, without adverse health risk. ADI is expressed on a body weight basis, meaning in milligrams (mg) per kilogram (kg) of body weight (bw) per day.

Dr Susana Socolovsky, International Consultant, Pentachem SRL, Argentina:

Low calorie sweeteners are used to replace sugar in foods and drinks. While low calorie sweeteners differ among each other in their structure, sweetness potency and overall profile, they are usually hundreds of times sweeter than sugar so only milligrams of a sweetener are required to replace for example 25g of sugar, the typical amount of sugar in a glass of sugar-sweetened soft drink.

The intake of low calorie sweeteners is monitored to ensure that exposure does not exceed the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for each individual sweetener. Overall, the studies conducted to determine the intakes of low calorie sweeteners globally over the last decade indicate that levels of intake are generally within the limits for the individual sweeteners ADI and raise no concerns with respect to exceedance of the ADIs.

Dr Rafael Figueredo, Director, Instituto Privado de Nutrición Integral, Paraguay, President of the Latin American Society of Nutrition (SLAN):

The use of low calorie sweeteners in place of sugar in the context of a structured diet and weight loss programmes may favour the reduction of excess weight and maintenance of weight loss. Their effect on weight management is modest but statistically and clinically significant, and more profound in overweight or obese individuals.

Furthermore, the use of low calorie sweeteners does not affect glucose control and may contribute to a better glycaemic control when used instead of sugar in the context of diabetes control programmes. The beneficial effect depends on the level of carbohydrate substitution and reduction.

Prof. Angel Gil, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Granada, Spain, President of FINUT:

Most studies on low calorie sweeteners and microbiome have been conducted in animals with very few human studies. Current data establish no evidence of adverse effect of low calorie sweeteners on the gut microbiota at doses relevant to human use. Dietary changes unrelated to low calorie sweeteners’ consumption are likely the major determinants of change in gut microbiota composition, confirming the viewpoint supported by all the major international food safety and health regulatory authorities that low calorie sweeteners are safe at currently approved levels. Further studies are needed to clarify whether changes observed with some sweeteners in the intestinal microbiota in animals are present in humans and to study the effects of sweeteners for which evidence is not available so far.

The webinar in Spanish is still available to attend online, for free, on the FINUT website here.