Low-Calorie Sweeteners - Q&A

 

Why do people crave sweetness?
Research shows that people have an inborn desire for sweet taste, one of the four fundamental taste sensations. Newborn infants have been observed to react positively to sweetness. Also, studies with adults, as well as infants, have demonstrated that the pleasant response to sweet solutions is a reflex, innate reaction, rather than a learned response. Historical evidence, such as a 20,000-year-old cave painting of a neolithic man robbing a wild bees' nest, indicates that humans may always have had a preference for sweets. It also is likely that sweetness was used in early times as an indicator of safety in selecting foods. This phenomenon may have led to the search for sources of additional sweetness (sweeteners) to make foods more palatable.

How is the desire for sweetness satisfied?
Honey and fruits have long been sought out for their sweet taste; however, since it was first refined some 600 years ago, table sugar (sucrose) has been the standard for sweetness. Until recent decades, sucrose was virtually the only sweetener in general use. Currently, in the U.S., low-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame potassium and sucralose provide alternatives to sucrose. These sweeteners contribute few or no calories to the diet and are the primary sweetening agents for low-calorie and sugar-free foods and beverages. In addition, polyols, or “sugar alcohols,” are appropriate for use in reduced-calorie products since they have caloric values which are lower than sucrose. Various caloric alternatives to sucrose also are being used in dietary foods and beverages, such as crystalline fructose and high fructose corn syrups. These sweeteners, however, contribute calories and may not always be suitable for various dietary and health needs.

What is the ideal sweetener?
The ideal sweetener is as sweet or sweeter than sucrose and has a pleasant taste with no aftertaste. Consumer acceptance of a sweetener is closely linked to how similar its taste is to sugar. The ideal sweetener also is colorless, odorless, readily soluble, stable, functional, economically feasible and does not promote dental cavities. It is nontoxic and is either metabolized normally or excreted from the body unchanged without contributing to any metabolic abnormalities, such as diabetes. Currently, the availability of a variety of low-calorie sweeteners allows the use of sweeteners either alone or in combination to achieve the requirements of the ideal sweetener.

What is a "low-calorie" sweetener?
A low-calorie sweetener provides consumers with a sweet taste without the calories or carbohydrates that come with sugar and other caloric sweeteners. Some low-calorie sweeteners, such as aspartame, are "nutritive," but are low in calories because of their intense sweetness. For example, because aspartame is 180 times sweeter than sucrose, the amounts needed to achieve the desired sweetness are so small that aspartame is considered virtually non-caloric. Many non-nutritive sweeteners, such as saccharin, are non-caloric because they are not metabolized and pass through the body unchanged. Currently, acesulfame potassium, aspartame, saccharin and sucralose are the only available low-calorie sweeteners in the United States.

Is there a need for low-calorie sweeteners?
Without low-calorie sweeteners, many of the reduced-calorie and light products that are in such great demand today would not be possible. A recent national consumer survey shows that the majority of Americans adults are conscious about their weight, with 54 percent currently trying to reduce pounds and 28 percent trying to control or maintain their weight. This wave of calorie consciousness has resulted in an exploding demand for low-calorie foods and beverages -- what has been referred to as the “light revolution." Manufacturers currently are providing consumers with an increasing variety of low-calorie food and beverage choices.

What are the benefits and limitations of aspartame?
In addition to being low in calories, aspartame tastes very similar to sugar. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar and is appropriate for many food applications. Aspartame also enhances some flavors, and when combined with other sweeteners, it has a synergistic sweetening effect (the combination of the sweeteners is sweeter than the sum of the individual sweeteners). Aspartame loses sweetness with prolonged exposure to high temperatures of oven or range heat and over an extended period of time in liquids. However, it can be added successfully to recipes and an encapsulated form is now available for commercial baking.

Is aspartame safe?
Aspartame has been extensively studied in animals and humans for more than two decades in more than 200 studies. When FDA approved aspartame, it noted: "Few compounds have withstood such detailed testing and repeated, close scrutiny, and the process through which aspartame has gone should provide the public with additional confidence of its safety." Persons born with a rare genetic disease called phenylketonuria (PKU), numbering about 15,000 in the total U.S. population, know to restrict their intake of phenylalanine from all dietary sources. Because aspartame-containing products are a source of phenylalanine in the diet, they carry the labeling, "Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine." It should be noted, however, that phenylalanine is found in much greater quantities in meats, milk and other protein foods. In addition to the FDA, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the World Health Organization, the Scientific Committee for Food of the European Union, and regulatory agencies in more than 100 countries have reviewed aspartame and found it safe for use. Additionally, a number of health groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Diabetes Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition, have issued statements in support of aspartame.

What are the benefits and limitations of saccharin?
Saccharin, the oldest of the approved low-calorie sweeteners, continues to be important for a wide range of food and beverage applications. It is a very stable sweetener allowing for good product shelf life and, like aspartame, has a synergistic sweetening effect when combined with other sweeteners. Also, saccharin is 300 times sweeter than sucrose and is relatively inexpensive to manufacture. A slight aftertaste is perceived by some people. However, combining saccharin with another low-calorie sweetener helps eliminate any aftertaste.

Is saccharin safe?
Nearly a century of use in the food supply has allowed studies to determine if saccharin poses a risk to humans. More than 30 human studies have been completed and overwhelmingly support saccharin's safety. One study, of 9,000 individuals conducted by the National Cancer Institute, concluded that there was "no evidence of increased risk with the long-term use of artificial sweeteners (saccharin and cyclamate) in any form or with use that began decades ago." Saccharin is approved in more than 100 countries and has been determined safe by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the World Health Organization and the Scientific Committee for Food of the European Union. JECFA noted that the animal data which earlier raised questions about saccharin are not relevant to humans. Additionally, the extensive research on saccharin has been reviewed by many in the scientific community and by national health groups. These reviews have led to significant statements in support of saccharin. In May 2000, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) released its 9th Report on Carcinogens and announced that saccharin had been delisted. And, on December 21, 2000, then-President Clinton signed federal legislation to remove the saccharin warning label that had been required on saccharin-sweetened foods and beverages in the U.S. since 1977 - ending any remaining controversy to the safety of saccharin.

What are the benefits and limitations of acesulfame potassium?
Acesulfame potassium (also known as acesulfame K) was approved by FDA in 1988. It is a non-caloric sweetener and has a clean sweet taste that is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Acesulfame potassium's high degree of stability when exposed to heat and in liquids makes it a versatile sweetener with potential use in a wide range of foods and beverages. Acesulfame potassium may be combined with other low-calorie sweeteners resulting in synergistic blends that provide improved taste profiles and overcome the slight aftertaste which may be noted otherwise with high concentrations in some products. Such blends also can provide economic and stability advantages.

Is acesulfame potassium safe?
Acesulfame potassium’s safety is supported by more than 90 studies conducted over 15 years. In addition to the U.S., it has been reviewed and determined safe by regulatory authorities in about 90 countries -- including Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Italy and Belgium -- by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the World Health Organization, and by the Scientific Committee for Food of the European Union.

What about the low-calorie sweetener, sucralose?
Sucralose is the only non-caloric sweetener created from sugar. Its unique combination of sugar-like taste and excellent stability allow sucralose to be used as a sugar replacement in virtually every type of food and beverage. It is 600 times sweeter than sugar, so very little is needed to obtain the same sweetness intensity. On April 1, 1998, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved sucralose for use in 15 different food and beverage categories. (More information on sucralose.)

 What is stevia?
 
Stevia is a plant of the Chrysanthemum family, the leaves of which have been used as a sweetener in South America for hundreds of years. Extracts from the stevia leaf have been available as dietary supplements in the U.S. since the mid-1990's and many contain a mixture of both sweet and non-sweet components of the stevia leaf.  Rebaudioside A is a sweet tasting steviol glycoside purified from the leaves of the stevia plant.

  What is the difference between stevia, rebaudioside A and steviol glycosides?
  The term stevia typically refers to a crude preparation (powder or liquid) of dried stevia leaves. It may contain a mixture of many substances, only some of which are sweet. Steviol glycosides can be isolated and purified from the leaves of the stevia plant and can be used to sweeten foods and beverages and used as tabletop sweeteners. Rebaudioside A is one of the steviol glycosides purified from the leaf of the stevia plant. Other steviol glycosides include stevioside, rebaudiosides B, C, D, F, steviolbioside, rubusoside, and dulcoside A.

Why is there a need for more than one low-calorie sweetener?
The availability of a variety of sweeteners greatly increases low-calorie product choices. With several low-calorie sweeteners available, each can be used in the applications for which it is best suited. Also, by having a variety of sweeteners from which to choose, manufacturers can overcome sweetener limitations by using them in combination. Using the most appropriate sweetener, or combination of sweeteners, for a given product is known as the "multiple sweetener approach."

How does the "multiple sweetener approach" benefit consumers?
The multiple sweetener approach allows the low-calorie food and beverage industry to meet the growing consumer demand for additional good-tasting, reduced-calorie products. A limited choice of sweeteners results in limited options for the consumer. Research has shown that certain low-calorie sweeteners perform better in certain products than in others. A wide variety of low-calorie sweeteners provides products with improved taste, increased stability, lower manufacturing costs, and ultimately more choices for the consumer.

Is there an advantage to using more than one sweetener in a product?
Low-calorie sweeteners are synergistic, meaning that when one sweetener is combined with another, the resulting sweetness is greater than the sum of the individual sweeteners. In certain products, blending sweeteners can provide improved taste as well as economic and stability advantages. Sweetener blends, which were first introduced in the 1960s in diet soft drinks, are currently used in products such as gelatins, puddings, flavored coffees, gum and frozen desserts. Sweetener blends are widely popular in Europe and Canada.

What additional low-calorie sweeteners might be available in the future?
  A low-calorie sweetener that may be available in the U.S. in the near future is cyclamate. A petition for cyclamate's reapproval also is under review by FDA. If cyclamate is reapproved, it will be used in combination with other sweeteners for most uses due to its relatively low sweetness intensity (30 times sweeter than sucrose).

What quantities of low-calorie sweeteners are consumed each year?
The amounts of low-calorie sweeteners consumed per capita are relatively very small, mainly because of their intense sweetness. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that the average combined consumption of low-calorie sweeteners is less than two ounces per person per year. This compares to nearly 150 pounds per capita consumption of sugar and other caloric sweeteners.

How do low-calorie sweeteners receive regulatory approval?
Before a low-calorie sweetener is approved for commercial use, it must undergo extensive testing (which can cost millions of dollars) and years of regulatory scrutiny. U.S. food safety laws prohibit FDA from approving a low-calorie sweetener (or any food ingredient) that has not been shown to be "safe," which the agency defines as "a reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists that the substance is not harmful under the intended conditions of use." The burden of demonstrating safety is on the petitioner requesting approval. The petitioner is required to provide FDA with extensive data, including the name, chemical identity and composition of the sweetener, the physical or other technical effects the sweetener is intended to produce, and comprehensive reports of research concerning safety. In addition to scientific evidence, FDA also considers projected consumption levels, as well as specific use levels requested in the petition.

Do consumers want reduced-calorie foods and beverages?
There has been a steady and significant increase in consumer demand for reduced-calorie products. The fitness craze, which has grown into a national phenomenon, has brought with it an increasing number of converts to the light market. A national consumer survey revealed that 54 percent of American adult respondents are trying to lose weight and 28 percent are trying to control their weight -- which means that approximately 187 million Americans are trying to either lose or control their weight. For most dieters, the use of low-calorie food and beverage options is an important element of weight-control strategy.

Why do people consume low-calorie products?
Low-calorie products provide consumers with many benefits. Whether by choice or necessity, millions of Americans restrict their intake of calories, carbohydrates and fats. According to opinion research, most people consume low-calorie products to stay in better overall health, eat or drink healthier foods and beverages, maintain weight, reduce weight or maintain an attractive physical appearance. Most people use low-calorie products as part of an overall healthy lifestyle. Research also shows that health professionals believe low-calorie sweeteners are especially beneficial to obese individuals and those with diabetes. Low-calorie sweeteners also do not promote dental cavities.

Are low-calorie foods and beverages useful in controlling weight?
As part of an overall sensible weight-control program, low-calorie foods and beverages can help consumers control calories and therefore control weight. Health professionals agree that the key to losing weight is to burn more calories than are consumed, either by increasing physical activity or consuming fewer calories -- or, preferably, both. Low-calorie foods and beverages provide consumers an alternative to higher-calorie, sugar-sweetened products. Recent studies support the effectiveness of low-calorie sweeteners in controlling caloric intake. In one recent study, researchers at Harvard Medical School concluded that aspartame "is a valuable adjunct to a comprehensive program of balanced diet, exercise and behavior modifications for losing weight." Health professionals are increasingly reminding Americans that “calories still count” -- foods and beverages containing low-calorie sweeteners can increase the variety of reduced-calorie choices in the diet.

How many calories can be saved by using low-calorie, sugar-free products?
The following calorie chart provides some examples.

Product
Calories with
*Sugar
Calories with
Low-Calorie
Sweetener*
Calories
Saved
Soft drink
(12 oz.)
150
0
150
Dry mix lemonade
(1 cup)
100
5
95
Coffee
(1 cup)
35
5
30
Strawberry yogurt
(1 cup)
230
100
130
Vanilla ice cream
(1/2 cup)
170
90
80
Gelatin dessert
(1/2 cup)
70
10
60
Chocolate pudding
(1/2 cup)
160
80
80
*Estimate

What products are low-calorie sweeteners used in?
Diet soft drinks and tabletop sweeteners are the most popular of the hundreds of low-calorie foods and beverages. In addition to soft drinks and tabletop sweeteners, aspartame may be used in any food or beverage, including: instant coffees and teas, ready-to-drink teas, powdered soft drink mixes, refrigerated and non-refrigerated fruit juice beverages, chewable multi-vitamins, cold cereals, chewing gum, breath mints, gelatins, puddings and fillings, dry mixes for dessert toppings, frozen desserts and novelties, yogurt-type products, baked goods, wine coolers, candies and pharmaceuticals. In addition to most of these products, saccharin is used in breads, table syrups, cake and frosting mixes, cookies, salad dressings, jams and preserves, sauces, dairy desserts and canned fruits. Saccharin also is used in dentifrices, mouthwashes, toothpastes, lipsticks and aftershave lotions. Acesulfame potassium’s approved uses include carbonated and alcoholic beverages, dry beverage mixes, instant coffee and tea, puddings, gelatins, chewing gum, dairy product analogs, candies, baked goods and baking mixes, yogurt, frozen desserts and as a tabletop sweetener. Sucralose is approved for use in 15 different food and beverage categories, including soft drinks.

What are some future low-calorie product possibilities?
Future expanded approvals of acesulfame potassium and sucralose, as well as approvals of cyclamate and neotame will result in an even wider choice of good-tasting, reduced-calorie products. Low-calorie product categories which offer excellent potential include: baked goods, hot and instant cereals, confections, ice cream products and salad dressings. In addition to low-calorie sweeteners, other low-calorie ingredients, such as fat replacers, offer tremendous potential for new revolutionary light products.

Will the search for the ideal low-calorie sweetener continue?
None of the known sweeteners (both approved and yet-to-be-approved) is perfect for all uses. As long as the strong demand for low-calorie foods and beverages continues, the search for the perfect low-calorie sweetener will persist. And, until the ideal sweetener is discovered, consumers will depend on a variety of low-calorie sweeteners to satisfy their desire for something sweet but low in calories.