Artificial sweeteners: chemical cocktails or a potent weapon in the fight against tooth decay, diabetes and obesity?
Why are sweeteners bad?
Whatever your opinion, there’s no avoiding them. They are found in thousands of products, from drinks, desserts and ready meals, to cakes, chewing gum and toothpaste.
Fears about their potential toxic effects have been around ever since the first sweetener, saccharin – once known as “the poor man’s sugar” – was first produced in 1879.
Cancer, strokes, seizures, low birth weight, high blood pressure, vomiting, dizziness – all have been cited as risks from consuming sweeteners.
But none of these claims has stuck, and demand for sweeteners continues unabated as consumers try to cut their sugar intake while still satisfying their sweet tooth.
The UK sweetener sector is valued at £60 million, and more than a quarter of British households buy artificial sweeteners.
Sweeteners are low-calorie or calorie-free chemical substances that are used instead of sugar to sweeten foods and drinks.
Find out what the evidence says on the safety of some of the most common sweeteners approved for use in the UK:
All sweeteners in the EU will have undergone a rigorous safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) or its predecessor, the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF), before they can be used in food and drink.
Moreover, Cancer Research UK and the US National Cancer Institute have said there is no evidence that sweeteners are associated with cancer risk in humans.
“Studies on artificial sweeteners have found that they do not increase the risk of cancer,” states Cancer Research UK.
“Large studies looking at people have now provided strong evidence that artificial sweeteners are safe for humans.”
As part of the evaluation process, the EFSA sets an acceptable daily intake (ADI), which is the maximum amount considered safe to consume each day over the course of your lifetime.
You don’t need to keep track of how much sweetener you consume each day, as our eating habits are factored in when specifying where sweeteners can be used.
Are sweeteners healthy?
Safe, yes, but are they healthy? Food manufacturers claim sweeteners help prevent tooth decay, control blood sugar levels and reduce our calorie intake.
EFSA has approved the health claims made about xylitol, sorbitol and sucralose, among others, in relation to oral health and controlling blood sugar levels.
Dietitian Emma Carder states: “Research into sweeteners shows they are perfectly safe to eat or drink on a daily basis as part of a healthy diet.”
She also says they are a really useful alternative for people with diabetes who need to watch their blood sugar levels while still enjoying their favourite foods.
“Like sugar, sweeteners provide a sweet taste to foods and drinks, but what sets them apart is that, after consumption, sweeteners don’t increase blood sugar levels,” she says.
It has been suggested that the use of artificial sweeteners may have a stimulating effect on appetite and, therefore, may play a role in weight gain and obesity. However, research into sweeteners and appetite stimulation is inconsistent. Also, there is little evidence from longer-term studies to show that sweeteners lead to increased energy intake and contribute to the risk of obesity.
“While more research is needed, sweeteners continue to have a useful role in offering a sweet taste without adding extra calories,” says Carder.