Sweeteners are being used more and more in certain sweet foods, especially as the war on sugar marches on. You might have heard or read that some non-sugar sweeteners are bad for you or even cause serious illness – but as dietitian Juliette Kellow, an independent nutrition consultant for the British Soft Drinks Association, told Coach, sweeteners have been extensively studied and ruled as safe the world over.
Having ruled out sweeteners as a public health concern, Kellow is quick to point out another one – that two-thirds of the UK’s population has a weight problem. “Heart disease is the main killer in this country, and cancer is the second biggest,” says Kellow. “Both of those are strongly linked to excess body weight.” Sweeteners can help with this bigger problem by replacing sugar in sweet foods. “Public Health England thinks reducing sugar intake is really important because it helps to reduce calories which can aid weight management,” says Kellow.
Read on to find out exactly what sweeteners are, how confident we can be that they’re safe (very), and some of the misconceptions about them, like whether they’re addictive – as well as the eye-opening amount of calories a can of soft drink a day can contribute over a year. Throughout keep in mind this goal: being in the third of the population who are a healthy weight.
What are the names of the most common sweeteners people will find on the ingredients list of products?
There are 11 sweeteners which are licensed for use in the UK. Aspartame is probably the one people are most familiar with. Others include saccharin, which has been around for 100 years; acesulfame K, which is sometimes shortened to ace K; stevia, which is being used more and more; and then sucralose is the other one that most people will probably see.
It’s worth knowing that quite often sweeteners are combined together in products because each has its own unique taste profile and level of sweetness. For example, aspartame is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar and sucralose is 500 to 600 times sweeter than sugar.
Where do you find sweeteners used?
Sweeteners are food additives used where you want to replace some of the sugar but still want a sweet taste. You only need very small amounts usually to give the same level of sweetness that you will get with sugar.
You can find them in carbonated drinks and some non-carbonated ones, like some squashes. You will also see them in things like yogurt, confectionery and desserts.
Is a zero-sugar soft drink sweetened with sweeteners healthier than a regular soft drink?
Yes. All the evidence suggests sweeteners are safe and in this country excess weight is a major health problem, so for me it’s a no-brainer.
A can of cola, for example, is about 140 calories and that’s literally 140 calories being provided by sugar – you don’t get any vitamins or minerals. It’s not unusual for people to have a can of pop every day so if you switch to a calorie-free version that’s a saving of 51,000 calories in a year. Working on the theory that you need to save roughly 3,500 calories to lose a pound of fat, technically you are saving enough calories to lose around a stone [3.6kg] in a year. That’s a major impact and you’ve got the same taste, the same quantity of fluid, the same fizz factor – you’re not making any other changes.
The other thing we have to remember is that sweeteners don’t impact on dental health. Despite years of dentists encouraging good tooth brushing, regular dentist visits and not eating sugary foods too often, tooth decay is still a major problem in this country. We know that with sugar, it is not just about the quantity, it’s about frequency. If somebody is constantly bathing their teeth in sugary products the mouth is constantly in this acidic environment, so sweeteners are a great way to reduce the impact on dental health.
How good is the evidence that sweeteners are safe?
All sweeteners that are used within the Europe Union in the food chain are approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and so are considered to be safe. I think we also have to recognise that additives are approved by other organisations, so, for example, the US Food and Drink Administration.
Taking something like aspartame, which seems to get most of the headlines. It’s probably one of the most studied additives in all honesty and it’s had numerous reviews done on it. EFSA did a massive great review in 2013, and basically confirmed that yes, it was absolutely fine in terms of safety.
I think part of the problem is that in the past we’ve had lab-based studies giving massive doses of sweeteners – ten, 20, 30, 100 times more than a human would ever be able to consume – to a very small rodent, and then making a connection between this particular sweetener and the health risk, and translating that into a message which has been reported in the press. The role of EFSA is to look at the evidence that’s relevant and they don’t exclude animal studies, but they will work through all the different scientific papers to draw their conclusions. The reality is, their job is to provide information to keep consumers safe.
Are sweeteners addictive?
No, I don’t think so. There’s not really any good evidence to suggest that any element of food is addictive in terms of the way that you would think of as true addiction. It’s very easy to create habits around food, but you could stop and not have any physical response.
Can sweeteners cause stomach issues in some people?
We know that something like sorbitol or xylitol, for example, can have a laxative effect, and cause wind, bloating and gas if you eat it in large quantities. Most products with sorbitol in will have a little note on the back saying ‘Don’t eat into excessive amounts, can have a laxative effect’ or words to that effect.
How can consumers know what is an excessive amount?
The reality is all that work’s been done for consumers. EFSA sets ADIs, which is acceptable daily intake, by looking at all the research that’s been done and finding the amount which could be a health risk associated with that, then they set that ADI 100 times lower.
To put that into perspective, to reach the ADI for sweeteners in cola, which is already 100 times lower than research has shown may be a potential risk, you’d be having 14 cans a day. And that would be every day over a long period of time, not just a one-off.