Low-calorie sweeteners (sometimes referred to as non-nutritive sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, or sugar substitutes) are ingredients added to foods and beverages to provide sweetness without adding a significant amount of calories. In fact, they can also play an important role in a weight management program that includes both good nutrition choices and physical activity.
Low-calorie sweeteners have a long history of safe use in a variety of foods and beverages, ranging from soft drinks to puddings and candies to table-top sweeteners. They are some of the most studied and reviewed food ingredients in the world today and have passed rigorous safety assessments. In the U.S., the most common and popular low-calorie sweeteners permitted for use in foods and beverages today are:
When added to foods and beverages, these low-calorie sweeteners provide a taste that is similar to that of table sugar (sucrose), and are generally several hundred to several thousand times sweeter than sugar. They are often referred to as “intense” sweeteners. Because of their intense sweetening power, these sweeteners can be used in very small amounts and thus add only a negligible amount of calories to foods and beverages. As a result, they can substantially reduce or completely eliminate the calories in certain products such as diet beverages, light yogurt and sugar-free pudding. In addition, many low-calorie sweeteners do not contribute to cavities or tooth decay.
The following are some helpful facts about the safety, benefits, and uses of low-calorie sweeteners.
Low-calorie sweeteners are thoroughly tested and carefully regulated by U.S. and international regulatory authorities, as well as scientific organizations, to ensure the safety of foods, beverages and other products that contain them. Current findings have documented that low-calorie sweeteners are safe for consumption as part of a balanced diet. Also, food and beverage manufacturers are required to list low-calorie sweeteners in the ingredients list on the product label.
The Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) must be determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prior to approval for any food ingredient, including low-calorie sweeteners, for use in foods and beverages in the U.S. The ADI is the amount of an ingredient (expressed in milligrams per kilogram of body weight) that a person can safely consume every day over a lifetime without risk. The ADI is set at one one-hundredth of the amount that has been found not to produce any adverse health effects in key animal studies. Therefore, it would be very difficult for a person to consume enough of any low-calorie sweetener to reach the ADI. In fact, current intake of each low-calorie sweetener is well below the ADI.
One exception is people who have a rare hereditary condition called phenylketonuria (PKU), which means they cannot metabolize phenylalanine, a component of aspartame. All products containing aspartame must carry a statement warning people with PKU of the presence of aspartame on the label. For people with diabetes, who must control their blood-sugar levels through careful monitoring of their sugar and carbohydrate intake, low-calorie sweeteners can offer a sweet alternative that does not affect blood glucose levels.
Substituting caloric sweeteners such as sugar with low-calorie sweeteners allows patients with type 2 diabetes greater flexibility with their health and dietary goals. A 2010 review of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics concluded that consumption of low-calorie sweeteners generally do not affect glucose levels in people with diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and American Heart Association (AHA) 2013 joint scientific statement, four randomized-control trials (the gold standard in scientific research) found no significant difference in the effects of low-calorie sweeteners on standard measures of glycemic response compared to other sweeteners. The statement also posits, “Monitoring carbohydrate intake...is a key strategy to achieve glycemic control,” which includes reduction in overall calorie intake.
Pregnant women and children can safely consume foods and beverages sweetened with low-calorie sweeteners. Current low-calorie sweetener consumption in children is well below the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for all approved low-calorie sweeteners. However, pregnant women and young children are not encouraged to restrict their calorie intake, so they should talk with their healthcare provider and/or dietitian about ensuring that dietary plans including low-calorie sweeteners still meet the desired calorie and nutrient goals.
Studies have repeatedly shown that low-calorie sweeteners do not cause or increase the risk of developing cancer. Click here for a discussion of cancer research conducted on each approved low-calorie sweetener.
Low-calorie sweeteners are often inaccurately linked to adverse health effects, such as seizures, infertility, stomach ailments, and possible effects on kidney and liver function. However, the existing body of research does not support such effects. Health authorities around the world have verified that low-calorie sweeteners are safe. Click here for information on each low-calorie sweetener demonstrates that they do not cause or increase the risk of these or other health conditions.
As Americans face increasing obesity rates, low-calorie sweeteners provide an alternative to caloric sweeteners and may facilitate weight loss or maintenance by limiting calorie intake. In addition, randomized controlled trials suggest that the use of low-calorie sweeteners may increase adherence to low-calorie diets and improve bodyweight and weight loss maintenance over time. Because they are not deprived of sweets, individuals consuming low-calorie sweeteners may feel more satisfied with their eating plans, helping them to lose weight and keep it off.
In one recent study, researchers at Purdue University found that consumption of saccharin led to increased appetite and weight gain in rats. However, many experts agree that there are a number of limitations that prevent the study from being applied to humans, including that rats have a known affinity for saccharin, and that the study had a small sample size, among other design flaws. While a few studies have suggested that low-calorie sweeteners may cause cravings and/or lead to weight gain, these studies have not changed the overall scientific consensus that low-calorie sweeteners can aid in weight management.
In fact, a 2012 review of human studies on low-calorie sweeteners and weight management published in The Journal of Nutrition concludes that there is no evidence that low-calorie sweeteners cause higher body weights in adults.
Sound clinical studies conducted in humans over the past 20 years have shown that low-calorie sweeteners can help with weight loss and/or maintenance. The CHOICE (Choose Healthy Options Consciously Everyday) study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in March 2013, found that people who drink two diet beverages instead of two sugar-sweetened drinks every day enjoyed a healthy change in their overall food preferences and calorie intake. A 2006 review of aspartame’s role in weight management demonstrated a weight loss of 0.2 kg/week (or 0.4 lb/week) when aspartame-sweetened products were substituted for those sweetened with sugar.
A 2014 meta-analysis published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition supported these earlier findings, as it showed that substituting low-calorie sweetened beverages for their full-calorie counterparts can aid in weight loss. In addition, a 2014 randomized control trial published in Obesity found that participants in a behavioral weight loss program who drank at least 24 ounces of low-calorie sweetened beverage a day not only lost weight, but lost more weight than participants who drank only water.
Experts agree that successful weight management requires more than just calorie reduction – moderation, along with eating a balanced diet and regular exercise, is key to reaching an optimal weight.
Each low-calorie sweeter has unique characteristics. Get a detailed breakdown here.
|Low-Calorie Sweeteners At a Glance|
|Sweetener||Date Approved||Sweeter Than Sugar||Brand Name(s)|
|Ace-K||1988||200x||Sunett ®, Sweet One ®|
|Aspartame||1981||180x||NutraSweet ®, Equal ®, others|
|Saccharin||Years prior to 1958||300x||Sweet ’N Low ®, Sweet Twin, Sugar Twin ®, others|
|Stevia Sweeteners||2008||200x||Truvia TM, PureVia TM, Sun Crystals ®|
|Sources: Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 2006; Food and Chemical Toxicology, 2008, 2011|