Artificial Sweeteners

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Guide to artificial sweeteners

Average read time: 15 minutes

Artificial sweeteners are one option for replacing the sweetness of sugar in food products. These sweeteners fall into the broader category of sugar substitutes. When replacing caloric sweeteners, these alternatives offer several benefits for weight and oral health. Despite the myths surrounding these products, artificial sweetening agents are safe. In this guide, we'll explain how beneficial these sweeteners are and the differences between each type.

What are artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are used in everything from food additives to tabletop sweeteners. When they're used as a food additive, they contribute a sweet taste to foods without adding calories or added sugar levels. When they're used in a tabletop sweetener, they appear in the form of packets, powders, or liquids that consumers add to food and drinks at home or in restaurants. These tabletop sweeteners generally contain a bulking agent as the artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar; the goal of the tabletop sweeteners is to replace the sweetness of sugar 1:1.

Unlike sugar alcohols, which come from natural sources, artificial sweeteners are a type of synthetic sugar substitute created by combining components in a lab. Sugar alcohols usually contribute some calories to food . Artificial or synthetic sweeteners are also known as non-nutritive or low-calorie sweeteners because they do not contribute calories to food.

As with natural low or no-calorie alternatives to nutritive sweeteners, synthetic products are popular for use in foods with reduced calories. Reduced calorie foods that frequently use these sweeteners include diet sodas, sugar-free drinks, reduced-calorie ice creams, and similar diet-friendly products.

The most significant difference between synthetic sweeteners and other sugar replacements is the amount needed. Most synthetic products are high-intensity sweeteners, meaning they are many times sweeter than sugar. To achieve the desired level of sweetness, you need much smaller amounts of these sweeteners, compared to sugar. Sugar alcohols are as flavorful or slightly less sweet than sugar, requiring larger amounts to achieve the same result.

Numerous studies back the safety of these sweeteners. Thanks to the hundreds of studies supporting various non-nutritive sweeteners, the Food and Drug Administration has approved these products for use in many foods. However, sweeteners like advantame and neotame have not received approval for use in meat and poultry products because the manufacturers did not intend for their products to have these uses.

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Benefits of artificial sweeteners

Some consumers and manufacturers prefer non-nutritive sweeteners over sugar because of the several benefits they offer. Noteworthy advantages of these sweeteners are their ability to help with weight control, preserve oral health, and give those with diabetes a source of sweet treats. Artificial sweeteners expand the number of food offerings available to those who have special low-sugar or low-calorie diets or those who choose such eating patterns.

Since synthetic sweeteners don't add calories, they can be helpful for weight control or weight loss. Despite their sweet taste, these sweeteners do not contribute to obesity. On the contrary, low-calorie sweeteners reduced body mass index , fat mass, waist circumference, and body weight by statistically significant amounts.

Choosing artificially sweetened products instead of those with sugar provides consumers an option to reduce their total caloric intake, which can aid with weight control. As with other dietary additives, consumers have a responsibility when using them to ensure they get the best benefits from them.

While opting for diet products over full-calorie alternatives will reduce total intake, compensating for the reduction will offset any weight control benefits. When appropriately used, low-calorie sweeteners can help people lose weight, but only if used to replace sugary foods without adding more calories to the diet.

Sugar feeds oral bacteria which can lead to tooth decay and cavities. Replacing sugary foods with those that have non-nutritive sweeteners can help oral health. When used alone, calorie-free sweeteners are non-cariogenic. The FDA requires products with this label not to have any sugar and keep a pH in the mouth at 5.7 or higher 30 minutes after consumption.

While these sweeteners have non-cariogenic properties, bulking agents used with them, such as dextrose and maltodextrin, may contribute to cavity formation. This rule is also true for sweeteners combined with sugar for consumer baking uses.

Frequently used non-caloric sweeteners in toothpaste preparations include saccharin, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium. These sweeteners give the dentifrice a pleasant taste and only account for a small percent of the contents.

People with diabetes must monitor their carbohydrate intake. Sugar is a carbohydrate, but non-nutritive sweeteners can help diabetics reduce their total carbohydrate consumption only when the non-nutritive sweetener is not blended with a bulking agent.

Since synthetic sweeteners do not have carbohydrates, they don't affect blood glucose levels. Foods containing these sugar replacements can allow diabetics to enjoy sweet flavors without raising their blood sugar levels.

Please note, both maltodextrin and dextrose, popular bulking agents for high intensity sweeteners are carbohydrates.

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Artificial sweetener myths

While non-nutritive sugar replacements have been proven safe through dozens of studies, they still have several myths surrounding them. These myths may prevent some people from embracing the use of these sweeteners in their products or keep consumers from purchasing them. Quality information and scientific studies have busted myths, see below!

Sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose, do not cause cancer. The reason behind this myth dates back to a few 1970s studies on rats and saccharin.

Scientists discovered saccharin by accident in 1878. Since then, people have used this sweetener as an alternative to sugar. However, because of a rat study in Canada in the 1970s, some believed saccharin was linked to bladder cancer.

Public outcry prompted the FDA to recant their approval of saccharin, which would cause its removal from stores. All products containing this sweetener had to carry a label indicating its connection to cancer in rats.

Later, scientists found male rats had a particular pH factor in their bodies, which made them more likely to develop bladder cancer. Humans do not have this factor, which is why saccharin products no longer carry a warning label. In 2000, the U.S. National Toxicology Report on Carcinogens dropped its listing of saccharin as a carcinogenic substance .

In 1981, the same year saccharin went on the list of potential carcinogens, the FDA approved aspartame for use. In 2006, one study suggested a link between excessive aspartame intake and leukemia and lymphoma in rats . However, when the FDA reviewed the study, it found several faults with it, allowing aspartame to retain its approval for use. Later studies found no links between aspartame intake and cancers, such as brain tumors, lymphoma, or leukemia.

Sucralose has also come under fire for a possible link to cancer. A 2016 study connected a high intake of sucralose to cancer, but the FDA concluded the investigation had significant problems with its reporting.

The FDA also had 110 safety studies to confirm sucralose was safe for use. Considering the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the FDA threw out the results of the single, poorly done 2016 study and retained sucralose's approval.

For the FDA to approve products for use in foods or drugs, numerous studies must support the safety of that product. Cancer risk studies are among those safety reports examined by the FDA, and if reliable scientific studies did support that a substance caused cancer or posed any other health risk, the FDA would not grant approval.

Sugar replacements do not cause weight gain if used correctly. Correct use of artificial sweeteners involves not replacing saved calories with unhealthy food choices. Drinking a diet soda does not allow a person to have a large piece of cake if they need to reduce total sugars and calories in their diet.

In one study of 163 obese women, those who consumed aspartame regained less weight following an initial weight-loss period, compared to those who only followed a weight-loss diet. The study concluded that aspartame could help maintain weight loss when used as part of a multidisciplinary weight control program.

Another study showed a connection between drinking beverages with non-nutritive sweeteners , reduced hunger, and significant weight loss. The study compared the hunger and weight loss of those following a slimming diet while drinking either water or a non-nutritive sweetened beverage. Those in the latter group lost more weight and reported fewer feelings of hunger, compared to those who drank water.

While it is true that synthetic sweeteners offer sweetness like sugar, they do not act the same in the body. Sugar is a carbohydrate, and the body processes carbs into energy by using the calories they provide. Too much sugar in the diet contributes to cavities, elevated triglycerides, weight gain, and poor nutrition. These all occur in people whose diets consist heavily of sugars or other nutritive sweeteners, such as honey and syrup.

The body does not use non-nutritive sweeteners for energy. Because the body does not get energy in the form of calories from these sweet alternatives, problems inherent with sugar intake do not occur with artificial sweeteners.

These substances are not the same as sugar and can be a healthier alternative when used in moderation. The American Heart Association backs the moderate use of non-nutritive sweeteners to reduce the total intake of added sugars in the diet.

One complaint about aspartame is its supposed ability to break down into formaldehyde in the body. This myth has some truth to it, but the notions that the formaldehyde could be harmful or could cause cancer are false.

When aspartame breaks down in the body, it creates a byproduct called methanol. This byproduct does create formaldehyde over time, but the body uses this secondary product to make essential proteins.

Once the body has used as much formaldehyde as it needs, the excess converts to formic acid and leaves the body through the urine. For most people, the body will manufacture 1,000 times more formaldehyde than someone could consume through aspartame-containing products.

Through the years, people have blamed their vague symptoms , such as headaches, depression, dizziness, and irritability on artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame. To try to find a scientific link between these problems and artificial sweeteners, researchers dove into the issue with several studies.

While these studies did link the conditions to using artificial sweeteners, scientists later invalidated them due to improper methodology or reporting. Thus far, no verified studies have linked aspartame to these problems.

When it comes to depression and memory problems, aspartame has not been linked to these conditions. In several studies, those who used aspartame did not show any cognitive disabilities in later tests . For those currently struggling with depression, some may have elevated sensitivity to aspartame, but for non-depressed people, using aspartame does not increase symptoms of depression.

Common artificial sweeteners

Commonly used synthetic sweeteners include saccharin, sucralose, aspartame, advantame, neotame, and acesulfame potassium. They each have different strengths and contribute varying attributes to foods when added. Understanding the differences between them will make choosing the right one for certain products easier.

The Food and Drug Administration approved all these for use as food additives.

Acesulfame potassiumShortly after its approval of aspartame, the FDA allowed acesulfame potassium's use in foods in 1988. By 2003, the Food and Drug Administration increased the applications of this sweetener to a general-purpose food additive.

Also called Ace-K, this sweetener can act as a preservative. Manufacturers commonly use this ingredient in diet drinks, especially those that taste more like regular sodas. Frequently, it needs to be combined with other sweeteners to hide the slight bitterness and increase the sweetness of the food or beverage. With sweetening power only 200 times more than sugar, Ace-K compares to aspartame in intensity.
AdvantameOne of the newest sweeteners, advantame earned FDA approval in 2014. Thirty-seven studies have shown the safety and efficacy of advantame in food use. These studies examined if advantame possibly causes cancer, problems with the reproductive system and development, issues with the immune system, or nervous system disorders. After reviewing the information, the FDA found no significant health issues that would prevent approval of advantame for use as a sweetener in foods, except meat and poultry.

Unlike aspartame and saccharin, advantame maintains its sweetness through baking, allowing it a more extensive range of uses. It has a high concentration and the highest intensity of other synthetic sweeteners — 20,000 times sweeter than sucrose.
AspartameThe second oldest synthetic sweetener in use, aspartame, earned FDA approval in 1981 for use in some foods and as a tabletop sweetener. Sodas and soda bases gained the ability to use aspartame in 1983. By 1996, it became approved as a general use sweetener. To achieve and maintain its FDA approval, aspartame has proved itself safe in more than 100 studies.

Technically, aspartame is a nutritive sweetener, but because it is 220 times sweeter than sucrose, the amounts required provide only negligible amounts of calories. The caloric components come from aspartame's base of two amino acids — phenylalanine and aspartic acid.

Due to the use of phenylalanine in aspartame, those with the rare genetic disorder phenylketonuria cannot consume products with this sweetener. Anything that includes aspartame must carry a warning to those with PKU not to consume the product.
Today, aspartame is one of the most popular sweetener options, with 6,000 products, including it in their formulations. However, it breaks down in heat and does not work well in baked goods or other applications that require cooking.
NeotameNeotame earned its approval in 2002 more than a decade before advantame. More than 113 animal and human studies of this sweetener contributed to its adoption.

Like sucralose and advantame, neotame is heat stable, making it useful for baking. It also has an extremely high intensity, between 7,000 and 13,000 times sweeter than sugar. Despite its stability in heat, this sweetener typically is an ingredient in diet drinks and reduced-calorie dairy products. It has not achieved the popularity of other sweeteners, like sucralose, due to its strong flavor.
SaccharinThe oldest non-nutritive sweetener is saccharin. Discovered in the 19th century, this sweetener was the only one on the market for most of the 20th century until aspartame's approval by the FDA in 1981. Though banned as an additive to processed foods between 1912 and World War II, saccharine remained popular as a table sweetener throughout the time.

Compared to sugar, saccharin offers between 200 and 700 times the sweetness, depending on the formulation. With such a high intensity, tiny amounts deliver the sweetness needed. As the oldest non-nutritive sweetener, saccharin costs less than other sweeteners in this category, but it may leave a bitter aftertaste for some people.

The FDA approves this sweetener for use in processed foods, beverages, bases, mixes, fruit juice drinks, and bases. However, it does not perform well in baking or high-heat applications.
SucraloseIn 1998, the FDA approved sucralose for use in 15 food types. The following year, it received approval as an all-purpose sweetener. To give its endorsement of the product, the FDA had to review 110 studies of sucralose, proving its effectiveness and safety for human use.

Like saccharin, sucralose offers high-intensity sweetness, 600 times that of sugar. Whereas other artificial sweeteners reduce their flavoring abilities when heated, sucralose is heat stable. Because it can withstand baking, sucralose works well in baked goods that need a sweet flavoring. This non-nutritive sweetener appears in reduced calorie frozen desserts, ice creams, beverages, baked goods, and chewing gum.

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Today's focus on reducing calories and providing products for lower sugar diets make artificial sweeteners more critical than ever. At Brenntag, we are a top specialty and ingredient distributor with 190 distribution locations for localized solutions and just-in-time delivery.

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