Sweeteners are additives that add a sweet taste to food. People worldwide have evolved to consume a lot of sweet products available on the market, because they provide instant high energy and are less expensive than natural vegetables and fruits. Owing to their huge consumption rates by all sections of the population, the question that arises in every mind is, how healthy are sweeteners?
Sweeteners can be nutritive or non-nutritive, and both may be added to food and drinks.
Sweetener tablets and hand with box whit cup of tea. Image Credit: Monika Wisniewska / Shutterstock
Sweeteners like refined sugar are carbohydrates that contain high calories are called as nutritive sweeteners and, hence, they are used by the body for energy. These are sucrose (table sugar), glucose fructose, lactose, and honey.
Sucrose: Most commercially available sweeteners are derived from plants like beets and sugarcane. They are refined to different degrees and formed into granules, powdered, or having an unmistakable brown color. Sucrose from beet or cane contains a total of 4 calories per gram and is a disaccharide.
Glucose: The carbohydrates and sugar that we intake are converted into glucose and then absorbed by the body in the gut. After it is digested, it provides energy to the body. Glucose in the body has a positive impact on athletic performance; it also plays a role in the functions of the brain, digestion, mental function, and for appetite.
Lactose: This is a sweetener found in milk and is easily digested by babies.
Honey: This is the most natural sweetener that has been in consumption for ages. It is a mixture of sucrose, glucose, and fructose and comprises 40% of water.
Health Concerns of Nutritive Sweeteners
Consumption of above 30 g natural sugars per day regularly has shown health risks on the body like the elevated risk of cardiovascular diseases in adults as well as children, obesity, increase in the glycemic index in diabetic patients, and causing dental caries.
Non-nutritive or artificial/synthetic sweeteners are low-calorie or calorie-free chemical substances that are used instead of sugar to sweeten food and drinks. They are not absorbed by the body though they provide much more sweetness to food than their natural equivalents.
Such sweeteners are commercially used in off-the-shelf items like toothpaste, chewing gum, cola drinks, cakes, biscuits, and other food products.
Some of the most common artificial sweeteners approved for use in the UK are:
- acesulfame K
- stevia (steviol glycosides)
Possible Health Benefits of Artificial Sweeteners
The presence of xylitol and saccharin in artificial sweeteners hugely help to avoid dental problems like cavities and tooth decay. They may also help with the following:
- Weight control. Being non-nutritive, artificial sweeteners provide virtually no calories that can be absorbed by the body. One packet of artificial sweetener is equal to two teaspoons of sugar. Therefore, they are a good option for a person trying to lose weight.
- Controlling Diabetes. Artificial sweeteners may be a good sugar-alternative for diabetics. Unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners generally do not raise blood sugar levels.
Health Concerns of Artificial Sweetener
Early research on artificial sweeteners declared that they caused many health problems. For example, saccharin was believed to cause cancer of the bladder in laboratory rats. As a result, in the 1970s, saccharin used to carry a warning label that it could be a health hazard.
However, till date no actual scientific evidence has been found to support that the artificial sweeteners used in the USA caused cancer or any other serious health problems. Numerous research studies affirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women. The results of these newer studies made the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) release a regulation on December 2010 insisting the removal of the warning label for saccharin.
Artificial sweeteners are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and they must be reviewed and approved before being made available for sale.
The FDA declares a substance as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). These GRAS substances are checked by qualified professionals based on scientific data as being safe for their intended use. Sometimes, if they have been in common use in food for a very long time, they are considered generally safe and do not require FDA approval before sale.
The organization has approved an acceptable daily intake (ADI), which is considered as the maximum amount for every artificial sweetener to be consumed daily during the course of one’s lifetime.
The Definition of Safe
Whether sweeteners on the whole are safe depends on the definition of safe. Safe would mean there is no harm caused to the body during intake. Natural sweeteners are essential for metabolic processes of the body, but they are to be taken in moderation. Studies leading to FDA approval have ruled out cancer risk in consumption of artificial sweeteners. The overall view is that it is more important to restrict the use of all kinds of sweeteners than to avoid them altogether.
Reviewed by Afsaneh Khetrapal Bsc (Hons)