Sweeteners: What You Really Need to Know About Them

Types, Uses and Risks of Sweeteners

The advice to avoid sugar is one that may people find rather hard to abide by. Let's face it: many of us have sweet tooth. So, someone advising you to stop taking it is probably wasting his saliva. A good number of the foods and drinks people consume raise their sugar intake up to 10 times higher than recommended levels. This, of course, puts their health at significant risk.

But there are other types of sweeteners that are said to offer better alternatives to regular sugar. What are the popular ones? Why are they used? And how safe are these?

About Sweeteners

A sweetener is any substance that gives a sweet taste. The term actually covers a variety of things. These include popular food items such as sugar, fruit syrup, maple syrup and corn syrup. However, these popular varieties aren’t often described as sweeteners, even though that’s what they are. They are caloric sweeteners.

Focus often tends to be on low or no calorie sweeteners whenever this term is used. People think more of sweeteners as sugar substitutes. These come with significantly lower energy. They offer what seems an appealing alternative to caloric sweeteners, most of which offer no nutritional value.

This latter group of sweeteners or sugar substitutes can come from nature or be produced synthetically. For this reason, there are natural sweeteners and artificial sweeteners. These are thought to offer some benefits to the body, unlike caloric sweeteners.

In this article, focus will be on sugar substitutes. Those are very likely what comes to your mind when sweeteners are mentioned. These are now used in many popular foods on the market. Examples include cereals, ice cream and diet sodas.

What this means is that many of the foods you consume probably contain sweeteners. For example, research showed that more than 66 percent of the people in the United States consumed beverages containing sugar substitutes in 2003-04.

Types of Sweeteners

There are many types of substances used as sugar substitutes. Major categories are high intensity sweeteners and sugar alcohols, also referred to as polyols. High intensity sweeteners, as their name suggests, are highly sweet – many times more so than sucrose or table sugar. Sugar alcohols are often not as sweet as sucrose.

Majority of sweeteners that are approved for use in foods are produced artificially. The following are the sugar substitutes that have the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


This sweetener is believed to be roughly 600 times sweeter than sucrose. The chlorinated sugar comes from either sucrose or raffinose. Its manufacturing process involves using three chlorine atoms to replace three oxygen-hydrogen groups.

Only around 15 percent of sucralose is believed to be absorbed by the body. The rest is eliminated in an unchanged state. It was approved by the FDA is 1998. Splenda is a brand of the sugar substitute.


A rather accidental discovery, aspartame comes from the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid. The revelation of the substance as a sweetener is traced to the work of James Schlatter. The researcher was trying to develop an ulcer medication when aspartame spilled on his finger. He noticed a sweet taste when he touched his hand to tongue.

The odorless crystalline powder is thought to be around 200 times sweeter than sugar. It has been the main focus of most research about sweeteners. The body metabolizes it into the original amino acids it comes from when consumed. Conditions that are rather acidic are best for the stability of aspartame. This explains why you will usually find it mostly in soft drinks.

Popular brands of aspartame include Equal and NutraSweet.


This has to be the oldest artificial sweetener. Saccharin was first synthesized in 1879. As in the case of aspartame, its discovery was also by accident. It was originally discovered by Remsen and Fahlberg using toluene derivatives. The substance is also made using phthalic anhydride, starting from 1950.

Saccharin is up to 500 times as sweet as sucrose. It usually produces a bitter aftertaste following consumption. Manufacturers get over this by adding other sweeteners. A popular brand is Sweet N' Low.

Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K)

Considered as sweet as aspartame, acelsulfame potassium is made of potassium salt which contains methylene chloride. It has a bit of bitter aftertaste, like saccharin. This is why it is often used in combination with other sweeteners, such as aspartame or sucralose. This makes it even sweeter.

You can find Ace-K in a variety of food products due to its ability to remain stable in slightly acidic or basic conditions. And unlike aspartame, it is able to withstand heat better. Popular brand names include Sunette and Sweet 'N Safe.


This is one of the newer sweeteners and one of the sweetest around. Using the aspartame formula as its basis, neotame is up to 13,000 times sweeter than common table sugar! The sweetener was approved by the European Union in 2011 and known as E961. It got FDA approval for general use back in 2002.

Neotame has similar chemical properties as aspartame. It features a combination of 3,3-dimethylbutil group and aspartic acid amino group. It is more stable than the other sweetener.

Neotame is a favorite of many food manufacturers. Its use significantly lowers cost of production. The sweetener boasts an impressive safety profile as well. It is a product of NutraSweet.


If you thought neotame sounded incredibly sweet, this one will definitely blow you away. Advantame, a product of the Japanese company Ajinomoto, is supposedly up to 20,000 sweeter than sucrose! It is the latest of the sweeteners approved by the FDA, with approval coming in 2014.

Advantame is made from aspartame and isovanillin. The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association classifies it as generally recognized as safe (GRAS).


Unlike all other sweeteners we have discussed so far, this comes from nature. Stevia is extracted from the stevia plant. Some sources describe it as zero calorie, while some others state it is low calorie. Its approval by the FDA is mainly because it comes from a natural source.

Stevia is said to have served as a natural sweetener for centuries in South America. Its popularity is rising in many countries because of its zero glycemic index and negligible calories. The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo are two major beverage manufacturers that have shown interest in the natural sweetener.

There are other sweeteners whose approval status depends on particular jurisdiction. An example is mogrosides, which is usually obtained from monk fruit. Although banned in the U.S., cyclamate is another synthetic sweetener that is available in some other countries, including Canada.

List of known natural or artificial sweeteners also include:

Certain colors are often used in North America to different sweetener packs. These include white for table sugar, blue for aspartame, yellow for sucralose, pink for saccharin and green for stevia.

Uses of Sweeteners in Foods

As noted previously, sweeteners are used in many foods that are available on the market today. Market analysts Mintel revealed that more than 3,900 food products using artificial sweeteners were introduced in the American market between 2000 and 2005. About 1,650 of those came in the year 2004 alone.

More and more manufacturers are shifting attention to sugar substitutes. A major reason for this are the health issues that researchers now associate common table sugar with. Notable among this problem is obesity, which is a precursor to more debilitating medical conditions. The thought is that sweeteners offer a better alternative.

In addition, an increasing number of manufacturers are taking interest in sweeteners because of cost considerations. For example, aspartame is the most popular artificial sugar substitute in the American food industry. This is mainly because its price has fallen considerably since the patent protecting it expired in 1992.

Cost effectiveness of low- or non-caloric sweeteners isn't just about requirement of lower amounts, compared to sugar. They also offer longer shelf life than sucrose.

How Sweeteners May be More Beneficial to Health than Sugar

One will only be stating the obvious saying sugar is getting increasingly demonized. This is why many think you are better off without it. We discuss below some of the considerations that might make sweeteners better if you wish to indulge your sweet tooth.

Dental care

Sugar substitutes are often more friendly to your teeth than sucrose. Sugars and carbohydrates attach to your tooth enamel. These provide food for bacteria to feed on, leading to rapid increase in their number. The microorganisms facilitate conversion of sugars into acids to bring about tooth decay.

Sweeteners do not produce these effects. Bacteria in your mouth are not able to ferment them. This makes it hard for these microorganisms to survive for long and ensures the health of your teeth.

The sugar alcohol xylitol is particularly popular for dental care. You can find it in many sugarless chewing gums. The sweetener protects your tooth enamel and prevents bacteria from sticking. This helps in guarding against plaque formation.


This condition is a serious health concern in modern society. It can contribute to a number of medical disorders, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Obesity results, in part, from excessive intake of calories. Sadly, that's what many foods most people eat these days have a lot of.

And of course, calories are mainly about the carbohydrates and sugars in food. Glucose and sucrose cause body fat and weight to increase. The former is worse at this. It has a high glycemic index.

On the other hand, sweeteners offer a better means of combating overweight and obesity. Their zero- or low-calorie quality makes them seem a great idea for those in need of help with these issues. They practically remove the need for having to eliminate foods than ordinarily require sugar. These substitutes make it possible to eat the same foods without loading on calories.

Reactive hypoglycemia and diabetes

Sweeteners are advised for patients with reactive hypoglycemia or diabetes. In the former case, the body releases too much insulin after taking in glucose. Blood sugar levels fall below that needed for efficient functioning as a result. The use of sugar substitutes may prevent this from happening.

It is widely known that sweeteners are best for individuals with diabetes or prediabetes. Research confirms this. Many of those who advise against the use of these substances agree to this benefit as well. They do not cause your blood sugar levels to surge at once as glucose or sucrose would. Those types that release energy get metabolized slowly thereby ensuring there is no significant surge in glucose levels.

Preliminary studies by the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation show that aspartame can provide pain relief. The researchers think it may help with conditions such as osteoarthritis and multiple sclerosis.

Controversies and Concerns

While proponents argue for replacing sugar with sweeteners, some other people are quick to point to their shortcomings. There is ongoing debate over whether these substitutes are truly better than sugar. Controversies abound and concerns exist.

Body weight

There is no consensus about whether sweeteners can indeed be beneficial in driving weight loss. Those opposed to the idea say that they can, in fact, lead people to experience more weight gains.

Some experts argue that highly potent sugar substitutes can alter your taste. You may develop intense liking for foods sweeter than what you were already used to. Healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables could lose their appeal entirely. Addiction to sweet things makes you more likely to consume items that will make you obese or that are not great for your health.

Besides, sweeteners may give a false sense of insurance. They can make someone feel he or she is free to eat more because their calorie intake has reduced. This may be said to be the reason you can, for example, see someone order a calorie packed meal after having just taken a diet drink.

Metabolic disorder

Some researchers have shown that sweeteners may hamper metabolic function. A study that appeared in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism noted that frequent consumption can lead to this. Another study found that consumption of drinks containing artificial sweeteners daily leads to higher risk of metabolic syndrome.

However, a 2015 review of study in Physiology & Behavior seems to refute these claims. It stated there was no evidence of non-caloric sweeteners causing metabolic disorders in human beings.


Some people think artificial sweeteners may cause cancer to develop. This thinking is no doubt not unconnected to rat tests that showed around the 1970s that the use of saccharin and cyclamate resulted in bladder cancer. Aspartame also has supposed links to the scary disease.

However, studies that the FDA recognized haven't confirmed this possibility. Researchers also observed in a 2015 systematic review that there was no clear evidence of relationship between the two. In addition, scientists have found that rats have a unique mechanism that causes cancer to develop from use.

Skin aging

It is also thought that sweeteners may make you age faster. But we can say this idea has more to do with the harmful effect of common table sugar. There is inflammatory response when blood sugar levels rise, whatever the cause.

The resulting rise in inflammatory substances in the body may speed up your aging clock. Inflammation in skin cells can cause you to develop acne or wrinkles. If you already have these skin health issues, they can become worse.

But accelerated aging doesn't seem like something you need to worry much about when it comes to sweeteners. The sugar substitutes are usually metabolized more efficiently in the body. This means they may not necessarily cause a spike in blood glucose levels.

You need to be aware that some people may be sensitive to sweeteners. This may cause them to experience symptoms such as migraine headaches, upset stomach and diarrhea. You may need to steer clear of these substances if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Which Sweetener is the Best?

The common belief appears to be that stevia is the best sweetener, although it is not the most popular for food manufacturers. The idea here for those who think this way is that you can never go wrong with nature. Some even consider the whole thing rather unfair seeing the sugar substitute somewhat in the same light as artificial sweeteners.

The fact that stevia is completely pure organic makes it a dietitian favorite. It contains practically no calories. There appears to be no research at this time showing that it gives rise to toxicity in humans.

Talking about safety, neotame is another sweetener that seems to impress. It is the only artificial sugar substitutes that the Center for Science in the Public Interests rates as safe.

Are All Other Sweeteners Unsafe Then?

It might appear like we are stating that stevia and neotame are the only safe sweeteners. Not so. In spite of the raging controversies, it can be said that these sugar substitutes are safe when used with moderation.

Small doses were used in practically all studies that led to their approval. Before any sweetener can be approved for general use in foods and drinks, strict evaluation usually comes first.

Aspartame is one of the most divisive sweeteners out there, as regards safety. It is said to have a hand in a variety of medical conditions, including brain tumors and chronic fatigue syndrome. If these were the case, the FDA will probably not have granted approval.

Aside taking them in smaller amounts, you only need to ensure you don't have a special condition that sweeteners are not favorable to. People with a genetic condition called phenylkenoturia (PKU) should stay away from aspartame.

The U.S. National Cancer Institute declares that sweeteners do not cause cancer. This view is also shared by Cancer Research UK.

So, if you are looking for a healthier choice than sugar, sweeteners may be worth considering. They can help to promote better health and wellbeing, especially for diabetics and those having prediabetes. You mainly need to ensure you do not use them in excessive amounts or too frequently. You can speak with a health professional for guidance.

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