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All about sweeteners

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Packets of Assugrin, a brand of cyclamate

A sugar substitute is a food additive that provides a sweet taste like that of sugar while containing significantly less food energy. Some sugar substitutes are natural and some are synthetic. Those that are not natural are, in general, called artificial sweeteners.

An important class of sugar substitutes is known as high-intensity sweeteners. These are compounds with many times the sweetness of sucrose, common table sugar. As a result, much less sweetener is required and energy contribution is often negligible. The sensation of sweetness caused by these compounds (the "sweetness profile") is sometimes notably different from sucrose, so they are often used in complex mixtures that achieve the most natural sweet sensation.

If the sucrose (or other sugar) that is replaced has contributed to the texture of the product, then a bulking agent is often also needed. This may be seen in soft drinks or sweet tea that are labelled as "diet" or "light" that contain artificial sweeteners and often have notably different mouthfeel, or in table sugar replacements that mix maltodextrins with an intense sweetener to achieve satisfactory texture sensation.

In the United States, seven intensely sweet sugar substitutes have been approved for use. They are stevia, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), saccharin, and advantame. Cyclamates are used outside the U.S., but have been prohibited in the U.S. since 1969. There is some ongoing controversy over whether artificial sweetener usage poses health risks. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates artificial sweeteners as food additives. Food additives must be approved by the FDA, which publishes a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list of additives. (Stevia is exempt under FDA's GRAS policy due to its being a natural substance in wide use well before 1958, and has been approved by FDA). The conclusions about safety are based on a detailed review of a large body of information, including hundreds of toxicological and clinical studies.

The majority of sugar substitutes approved for food use are artificially synthesized compounds. However, some bulk natural sugar substitutes are known, including sorbitol and xylitol, which are found in berries, fruit, vegetables, and mushrooms. It is not commercially viable to extract these products from fruits and vegetables, so they are produced by catalytic hydrogenation of the appropriate reducing sugar. For example, xylose is converted to xylitol, lactose to lactitol, and glucose to sorbitol. Other natural substitutes are known but are yet to gain official approval for food use.

Some non-sugar sweeteners are polyols, also known as "sugar alcohols". These are, in general, less sweet than sucrose but have similar bulk properties and can be used in a wide range of food products. Sometimes the sweetness profile is 'fine-tuned' by mixing with high-intensity sweeteners. As with all food products, the development of a formulation to replace sucrose is a complex proprietary process.


Sugar substitutes are used for a number of reasons, including:

  • To assist in weight loss – some people choose to limit their food energy intake by replacing high-energy sugar or corn syrup with other sweeteners having little or no food energy. This allows them to eat the same foods they normally would while allowing them to lose weight and avoid other problems associated with excessive caloric intake.
  • Dental care – sugar substitutes are tooth-friendly, as they are not fermented by the microflora of the dental plaque. An example of a sweetener that can benefit dental health is xylitol. Xylitol works to prevent bacteria from adhering to the tooth surface, thus preventing plaque formation and eventually decay. The carbohydrates and sugars consumed usually adheres to the tooth enamel. Bacteria can feed upon this food source allowing them to quickly multiply. As the bacteria feed upon the sugar, they convert it to acid waste that in turn decays the tooth structure. Xylitol cannot be fermented by these bacteria, so the bacteria have difficulty thriving, thus helping to prevent plaque formation.
  • Diabetes mellitus – people with diabetes have difficulty regulating their blood sugar levels. By limiting their sugar intake with artificial sweeteners, they can enjoy a varied diet while closely controlling their sugar intake. Also, some sugar substitutes do release energy but are metabolized more slowly, potentially allowing blood sugar levels to remain more stable over time.
  • Reactive hypoglycaemia – individuals with reactive hypoglycaemia will produce an excess of insulin after quickly absorbing glucose into the bloodstream. This causes their blood glucose levels to fall below the amount needed for proper body and brain function. As a result, like diabetics, they must avoid intake of high-glycemic foods like white bread, and often choose artificial sweeteners as an alternative.
  • Avoiding processed foods – individuals may opt to replace refined white sugar with less-processed sugars, such as fruit juice or maple syrup.
  • Cost – many sugar substitutes are cheaper than sugar. Alternative sweeteners are often low in cost because of their long shelf-life and high sweetening intensity. This allows alternative sweeteners to be used in products that will not perish after a short period of time.


Weight gain and insulin response to artificial sweeteners
Animal studies have indicated that a sweet taste induces an insulin response in rats. However, the extension of animal model findings to humans is unclear, as human studies of intragastric infusion of sucralose have shown no insulin response from analogous taste receptors. The release of insulin causes blood sugar to be stored in tissues (including fat). In the case of a response to artificial sweeteners, even if blood sugar does not increase, there can be increased hypoglycaemia or hyperinsulinaemia and increased food intake the next time there is a meal. Rats given sweeteners have steadily increased calorie intake, increased body weight, and increased fatness. Furthermore, the natural responses to eating sugary foods (eating less at the next meal and using some of the extra calories to warm the body after the sugary meal) are gradually lost.

A 2012 study at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul showed that addition of either saccharin or aspartame to the diet of test rats resulted in increased weight gain compared to addition of sucrose, when total caloric intake was similar among groups.

A 2014 study by a collaboration of seventeen scientists from nine Israeli research institutes presented experimental evidence that artificial sweeteners may exacerbate, rather than prevent, metabolic disorders such as Type 2 diabetes. They reported that artificial sweeteners increase the blood sugar levels in both mice and humans by altering the composition and function of the gut flora. Excessive blood sugar levels are an early indicator of Type 2 diabetes and metabolic disease. Mice given drinking water supplemented with artificial sweetener (commercial formulations of saccharin, sucralose or aspartame) developed greater glucose intolerance than mice drinking pure water, or water with only sugar added. The effect occurred both in mice fed standard food and those on a high-fat diet. Changes in the composition of the gut flora were observed by sequencing a ribosomal RNA gene. When antibiotics were then used to kill off gut bacteria, the degree of glucose intolerance in mice fed either diet was restored to normal levels present before artificial sweetener was introduced. Human subjects were also studied. Gut bacteria from 381 non-diabetics averaging age 43 were analyzed, revealing differences in the gut bacteria between those subjects who habitually consumed artificial sweeteners and those who did not, as well as "markers" for diabetes, such as raised blood sugar levels and glucose intolerance. The researchers noted that the increase in human consumption of artificial sweeteners coincides with the modern epidemic incidence of obesity and diabetes. In a journal commentary, two researchers of the pathology department at the University of Chicago, who were not involved in the study, opined that this combination of data indicates that artificial sweeteners "may contribute to, rather than alleviate, obesity-related metabolic conditions, by altering the composition and function of bacterial populations in the gut".

In comparison to sugar
Eating natural sugars like glucose instead of a sugar substitute can also have negative health effects. The calories contained in sugar-sweetened beverages contributes to increases in body weight and body fat, and that replacement of sugar by artificial sweeteners reduces weight. Obesity contributes to diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Sucrose has a high glycemic index, glucose medium, and fructose low. The consumption of added sugars has been positively associated with multiple measures known to increase cardiovascular disease risk amongst adolescents as well as adults. There is "convincing evidence from human intervention studies, epidemiological studies, animal studies and experimental studies, for an association between the amount and frequency of free sugars intake and dental caries" while other sugars (complex carbohydrate) consumption is normally associated with a lower rate of dental caries.


The food and beverage industry is increasingly replacing sugar or corn syrup with artificial sweeteners in a range of products traditionally containing sugar.

According to market analysts Mintel, a total of 3,920 products containing artificial sweeteners were launched in the U.S. between 2000 and 2005. In 2004 alone, 1,649 artificially sweetened products were launched. According to market analysts Freedonia, the United States artificial sweetener market is set to grow at around 8% per year to $189 million in 2012.

Aspartame is currently the most popular artificial sweetener in the U.S. food industry, as the price has dropped significantly since the Monsanto Company patent expired in 1992. However, sucralose may soon replace it, as alternative processes to Tate & Lyle's patent seem to be emerging. According to Morgan Stanley, this can mean that the price of sucralose will drop by thirty percent.

Alternative sweeteners are highly consumed in America. According to research studies explained by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in 2003–2004, Americans two years of age and older consumed 585 grams (21 oz) per day of beverages and 375 grams (13 oz) per day of foods with caloric sweeteners. More than 66% of Americans consumed these beverages with alternative sweeteners and 82.3% of Americans consumed foods with added caloric sweeteners. On the other hand, 10.8% of Americans in 2003–2004 consumed non-caloric alternative sweetener flavoured beverages and 5.8% consumed non-caloric alternative sweetener flavoured foods.

Some commonly consumed foods with alternative sweeteners are diet sodas, cereals, and sugar-free desserts such as ice cream. Alternative sweeteners are found in many products today due to their low or non-caloric characteristics. This can be used as a method of advertisement for dieters or those conscious of their sugar intake. Those with diabetes can greatly benefit from alternative sweeteners that do not affect their blood sugar levels drastically. This aids in maintaining low insulin use in the body and blood sugar levels. Alternative sweeteners such as xylitol and saccharin have many positive research results that show qualities of dental decay prevention.


Aspartame was discovered in 1965 by James M. Schlatter at the G.D. Searle company (later purchased by Monsanto). He was working on an anti-ulcer drug and accidentally spilled some aspartame on his hand. When he licked his finger, he noticed that it had a sweet taste. It is an odourless, white crystalline powder that is derived from the two amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It is about 200 times as sweet as sugar and can be used as a tabletop sweetener or in frozen desserts, gelatines, beverages, and chewing gum. When cooked or stored at high temperatures, aspartame breaks down into its constituent amino acids. This makes aspartame undesirable as a baking sweetener. It is more stable in somewhat acidic conditions, such as in soft drinks. Though it does not have a bitter aftertaste like saccharin, it may not taste exactly like sugar. When eaten, aspartame is metabolized into its original amino acids. Because it is so intensely sweet, relatively little of it is needed to sweeten a food product, and is thus useful for reducing the number of calories in a product.

The safety of aspartame has been studied extensively since its discovery with research that includes animal studies, clinical and epidemiological research, and postmarketing surveillance, with aspartame being one of the most rigorously tested food ingredients to date. Aspartame has been subject to multiple claims against its safety, including supposed links to cancer as well as complaints of neurological or psychiatric side effects. Multiple peer-reviewed comprehensive review articles and independent reviews by governmental regulatory bodies have analyzed the published research on the safety of aspartame and have found aspartame is safe for consumption at current levels. Aspartame has been deemed safe for human consumption by over 100 regulatory agencies in their respective countries, including the UK Food Standards Agency, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and Canada's Health Canada.


Cyclamate-based sugar substitute sold in Canada

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale of cyclamate in 1969 after lab tests in rats involving a 10:1 mixture of cyclamate and saccharin indicated that large amounts of cyclamates causes bladder cancer, a disease to which rats are particularly susceptible. Cyclamates are still used as sweeteners in many parts of the world, including Europe (e.g. UK and Russia).


Saccharin, historical wrapping; Sugar Museum (Berlin)

Aside from sugar of lead, saccharin was the first artificial sweetener and was originally synthesized in 1879 by Remsen and Fahlberg. Its sweet taste was discovered by accident. It had been created in an experiment with toluene derivatives. A process for the creation of saccharin from phthalic anhydride was developed in 1950, and, currently, saccharin is created by this process as well as the original process by which it was discovered. It is 300 to 500 times as sweet as sugar (sucrose) and is often used to improve the taste of toothpastes, dietary foods, and dietary beverages. The bitter aftertaste of saccharin is often minimized by blending it with other sweeteners.

Fear about saccharin increased when a 1960 study showed that high levels of saccharin may cause bladder cancer in laboratory rats. In 1977, Canada banned saccharin due to the animal research. In the United States, the FDA considered banning saccharin in 1977, but Congress stepped in and placed a moratorium on such a ban. The moratorium required a warning label and also mandated further study of saccharin safety.

Subsequent to this, it was discovered that saccharin causes cancer in male rats by a mechanism not found in humans. At high doses, saccharin causes a precipitate to form in rat urine. This precipitate damages the cells lining the bladder (urinary bladder urothelial cytotoxicity) and a tumor forms when the cells regenerate (regenerative hyperplasia). According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, "Saccharin and its salts was (sic) downgraded from Group 2B, possibly carcinogenic to humans, to Group 3, not classifiable as to carcinogenicity to humans, despite sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity to animals, because it is carcinogenic by a non-DNA-reactive mechanism that is not relevant to humans because of critical interspecies differences in urine composition."

In 2001 the United States repealed the warning label requirement, while the threat of an FDA ban had already been lifted in 1991. Most other countries also permit saccharin but restrict the levels of use, while other countries have outright banned it.

The EPA has officially removed saccharin and its salts from their list of hazardous constituents and commercial chemical products. In a December 14, 2010, release the EPA stated that saccharin is no longer considered a potential hazard to human health.

Stevia has been widely used as a natural sweetener in South America for centuries and in Japan since 1970. Due to its unique characteristics of zero glycemic index and zero calories, it is fast becoming popular in many other countries. In 1987, the FDA issued a ban on stevia because it had not been approved as a food additive. After being repeatedly provided with a significant amount of scientific data proving that there was no side-effect of using stevia as a sweetener from companies such as Cargill and Coca-Cola, the FDA gave a "no objection" approval for GRAS status in December 2008 to Truvia, a blend of rebiana and erythritol (developed by Cargill and The Coca-Cola Company), as well as PureVia (developed by PepsiCo and the Whole Earth Sweetener Company, a subsidiary of Merisant), both of which using rebaudioside A derived from the Stevia plant. In Australia, the brand Vitarium has used Natvia, a natural stevia sweetener, to do a range on sugar-free children's milk mixes.

Sucralose is a chlorinated sugar that is about 600 times as sweet as sugar. It is produced from sucrose when three chlorine atoms replace three hydroxyl groups. It is used in beverages, frozen desserts, chewing gum, baked goods, and other foods. Unlike other artificial sweeteners, it is stable when heated and can therefore be used in baked and fried goods. About 15% of sucralose is absorbed by the body and most of it passes out of the body unchanged. The FDA approved sucralose in 1998.

Most of the controversy surrounding Splenda, a sucralose sweetener, is focused not on safety but on its marketing. It has been marketed with the slogan, "Splenda is made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar." Sucralose is prepared from either of two sugars, sucrose or raffinose. With either base sugar, processing replaces three oxygen-hydrogen groups in the sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms.

The "Truth About Splenda" website was created in 2005 by The Sugar Association, an organization representing sugar beet and sugar cane farmers in the United States, to provide its view of sucralose. In December 2004, five separate false-advertising claims were filed by the Sugar Association against Splenda manufacturers Merisant and McNeil Nutritionals for claims made about Splenda related to the slogan, "Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar". French courts ordered the slogan to no longer be used in France, while in the U.S. the case came to an undisclosed settlement during the trial.

There are few safety concerns pertaining to sucralose and the way sucralose is metabolized suggests a reduced risk of toxicity. For example, sucralose is extremely insoluble in fat and, thus, does not accumulate in fatty tissues; sucralose also does not break down and will dechlorinate only under conditions that are not found during regular digestion (i.e., high heat applied to the powder form of the molecule).

Lead acetate (historic)
Lead acetate (sometimes called sugar of lead) is an artificial sugar substitute made from lead that is of historical interest because of its widespread use in the past, such as by ancient Romans. The use of lead acetate as a sweetener eventually produced lead poisoning in any individual ingesting it habitually. Lead acetate was abandoned as a food additive throughout most of the world after the high toxicity of lead compounds became apparent.

More recently, mogrosides (typically extracted from monk fruit) have been used in commercial products after the FDA granted some of the compounds GRAS status in 2010. As of 2011, it is not (yet) a permitted sweetener in the EU, although it is allowed as a natural flavour at concentrations where it does not function as a sweetener. Some of the products incorporating it are Nestlé's Milo in Asia and certain Kellogg cereals in the U.S. It is also the basis of McNeil Nutritionals's tabletop sweetener Nectresse in the U.S. and Norbu Sweetener in Australia. As of 2012, the New Zealand company BioVittoria provides more than 90 percent of the global supply of monk fruit extract; its main manufacturing facility for the product is in Guilin, China.


The three primary compounds used as sugar substitutes in the United States are saccharin (e.g., Sweet'N Low), aspartame (e.g., Equal, NutraSweet) and sucralose (e.g., Splenda, Altern). Maltitol and sorbitol are often used, frequently in toothpaste, mouth wash, and in foods such as "no sugar added" ice cream. Erythritol is gaining momentum as a replacement for these other sugar alcohols in foods as it is much less likely to produce gastrointestinal distress when consumed in large amounts. In many other countries, xylitol, cyclamate, and the herbal sweetener stevia are used extensively.

When sweeteners are provided for restaurant customers to add to beverages such as tea and coffee themselves, they are often available in paper packets which can be torn and emptied. In North America, the colors are typically white for natural sugar, blue for aspartame, pink for saccharin, yellow for sucralose (United States) or cyclamate (Canada), tan for turbinado, orange for monk fruit extract, and green for stevia. One U.S. brand of saccharin also uses yellow packets.

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