Low calorie sweeteners - answers to some commonly asked questions

What are low calorie sweeteners?
Low calorie sweeteners provide a sweet taste to food or drinks with the benefit of little or no calories. They can be added to foods or drinks (in tea, coffee or baking) and are used in many low calorie and sugar-free foods and beverages such as soft drinks, chewing gum, confectionery, frozen desserts, dessert mixes, yogurts and puddings.

What are the main types of low-calorie sweeteners?
There are two main types of sweetener. Intense sweeteners include saccharin, sucralose, acesulfame K (ace-K) and aspartame. These are typically used as table top sweeteners and in low calorie soft drinks and are so intensely sweet that only a tiny amount is needed. They are also used in sugar-free gum and low calorie yogurts.  Bulk sweeteners provide fewer calories weight for weight compared to sugar, but have a similar bulk or volume. These are useful, for example, when preparing low calorie confectionery products.

What are the potential benefits of using low calorie sweeteners?
The use of low calorie sweeteners may offer benefits in relation to weight management, diabetes management and dental health. For example, in relation to weight management, the use of sweeteners can help people to control their calorie intake.

Do foods and drinks have to specify whether they contain low calorie sweeteners on their labels?
By law, the addition of low calorie sweeteners to food or drink products must be clearly labelled as ‘with sweetener(s)’ on the packaging. Sweeteners will also be listed in the ingredients list where provided.

How is the safety of low calorie sweeteners assessed?
All low calorie sweeteners used in food and drinks sold in the EU have to undergo rigorous safety testing before being approved by the European Commission. Food ingredient manufacturers have to provide evidence from safety studies showing that the low calorie sweetener in question does not cause any adverse effects, including cancer, that it does not affect reproduction, that it is not stored within the body or metabolised into other potentially unsafe products, and that it does not cause allergic reactions.

As part of the approval process for each low calorie sweetener, an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) level is set. The ADI is the estimated amount per kilogram of body weight that a person can consume, on average, every day over a lifetime without risk. This has a huge inbuilt safety margin making it very unlikely that the diet of any individual will ever provide this level.

Are low calorie sweeteners safe for children to consume?
Low calorie sweeteners are safe for children to consume. Children are very unlikely to have intakes near the ADI even if they regularly consume drinks or food products containing sweeteners.

Are low calorie sweeteners safe for pregnant women?
Consumption of approved low calorie sweeteners below the ADI level is safe during pregnancy. There is no evidence of any risks to the mother or her unborn child.

Are there any individuals who cannot consume low-calorie sweeteners?
There is a rare genetic condition known as phenylketonuria (PKU) that prevents the amino acid phenylalanine from being properly metabolised. People with PKU are placed on a phenylalanine-restricted diet. Phenylalanine (a component of protein) is found in many protein-containing foods and is also a component of aspartame. It is therefore important that people with PKU carefully monitor their consumption of foods containing aspartame. For this reason, all foods, drinks and healthcare products that contain aspartame must, by law, clearly state on the label that they contain ‘a source of phenylalanine’. PKU is a condition that is diagnosed at birth.
 
This factsheet has been prepared by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) in association with the BNF conference ‘The science of low calorie sweeteners – separating fact from fiction’ held in London on 15th April 2010.
 
A panel discussion was held at the conference to discuss some of the science behind the headlines about sweeteners. To view the panel discussion, right click here and choose 'Save Link As'.
 
Last reviewed April 2010. Next review due June 2013.
Attachments:
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Download this file (BNF Factsheet HCP FINAL.pdf)BNF Factsheet HCP FINAL.pdf 89 kB
Download this file (BNF Factsheet Sweeteners.pdf)BNF Factsheet Sweeteners.pdf 71 kB

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