What do we know about sweet taste physiology, low/no calorie sweeteners and sugar reduction?

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Science news from the French Nutrition Society webinars

Highlights:

  • The safety of low/no calorie sweeteners is thoroughly assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) who confirms that their consumption is safe and within the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) levels for each individual sweetener.
  • Replacing sugar with low/no calorie sweeteners can be helpful in calorie reduction especially in high sugar consumers, in supporting modest weight loss in people with obesity and in better glucose control in people with diabetes or pre-diabetes.
  • Sweetness has a very long history: it is well established that the preference for sweet taste is innate, however, the physiology of sweet taste, sweetness perception and sweetness preference are complex phenomena that need to be further investigated in future research.

 

In a series of webinars organised by the French Nutrition Society (Société Française de Nutrition – SFN) in February 2021, and supported by the International Sweeteners Organisation (ISA), nine scientific experts talked about several aspects around low/no-calorie sweeteners and sugar reduction. In the three webinars, the speakers presented the latest evidence on the safety and intake levels of low/no calorie sweeteners, their use in clinical practice and their potential benefit in weight and glucose control, and further discussed the physiology of sweet taste and the complexity that characterises perception and preference for sweetness and its relationship with sweeteners. A summary of the presentations delivered at the SFN webinars has been published in French in the scientific journal Cahiers de Nutrition et de Diététique.

Safety and intake assessment of low/no calorie sweeteners

In the European Union, the use of low/no-calorie sweeteners as food additives is subject to authorisation after their comprehensive safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). During the assessment process, an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) is established for each individual sweetener, which represents the amount of the sweetener that can be safely consumed on a daily basis throughout a person’s lifetime without any health problems. The consumption of low/no calorie sweeteners is periodically assessed to ensure that intake does not exceed the ADI for each individual sweetener. Recent data from several European countries, which were presented at the webinar, confirm that the intake of all approved low/no calorie sweeteners is far below the ADI for each sweetener.

Which individuals are most likely to have benefits from the use of low/no calorie sweeteners?

The current evidence and controversy over the benefits of low/no calorie sweeteners in weight control and in diabetes were also discussed in the webinar. Experts explained that some individuals might see a modest but significant benefit in weight management when they are using low/no calorie sweeteners in place of sugars, but this largely depends on their overall dietary habits and primarily on the level of sugar replacement. A case-by-case approach is recommended in clinical practice. So, for example, a high consumer of sugary drinks can have important calorie savings if all sugar-sweetened beverages are replaced by low/no calorie sweetened alternatives in the diet. Also, substituting sugars with low/ no calorie sweeteners might help people with obesity in their effort to lose weight by following a more palatable low-calorie diet. In any case, low/ no calorie sweeteners should be integrated within an overall healthy diet and lifestyle.

Discussing the impact of low/no calorie sweeteners on glucose control, the evidence presented by the speakers support the assertion that low/no calorie sweeteners do not raise blood glucose levels. Therefore, the experts concluded that replacing sugary foods (and primarily beverages) with low/no-calorie sweeteners in people with overweight/obesity and/or pre-diabetes with observed insulin resistance can contribute to better control of blood sugar levels, especially when low/no calorie-sweetened products are eaten between meals.

The complex physiology of sweet taste

What has long been known is that the preference for sweet taste is innate. However, there are still several aspects around sweetness perception and preference that need to be clarified in future research. The speakers described the role of taste receptors and the complex mechanisms involved in sweetness perception. While these are now well described in terms of molecular and functional characteristics, we still need to understand how both sweetness preference and perception vary depending on the individual and how they are shaped by different exogenous or endogenous factors.

Managing our desire for sweet taste is complex too. While the hypothesis of sugar addiction is rejected, there seems to be a consensus on the usefulness of reducing its consumption, particularly that of free sugars. With regard to low/no calorie sweeteners, evidence presented at the webinar shows that, by themselves, low/no calorie sweeteners do not affect hunger, satiety or appetite for sweet taste, and therefore they can be useful to help people reduce excess sugars intake.

For more information:

You may watch on demand the three webinars on “Low/no calorie sweeteners and sugar reduction” on the SFN website (in French), here: https://sf-nutrition.fr/2020/12/15/workshop-isa-sfn-edulcorants-et-reduction-de-sucre-02-16-23-fevrier-2021/

You may also review the scientific paper published in French in Cahiers de Nutrition et de Diététique, which presents the Summary of the SFN workshop in partnership with the International Sweeteners Association (ISA).

Morio B. and Guy-Grand B. Édulcorants et réduction du sucre. Synthèse du workshop de laSFN en partenariat avec l’International Sweeteners Association (ISA) donné en trois webséries du 02/02 au 23/02/2021. Cahiers de Nutrition et de Diététique 2021. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cnd.2021.04.001