Low calorie sweeteners are substances added to foods and drinks to provide sweet taste without calories, or with very few calories. Most low calorie sweeteners are several hundred times sweeter than table sugar, meaning that only small quantities need to be added to achieve a sweetening effect.
Low calorie sweeteners are used in a variety of food and drink products including:
- soft drinks
- chewing gum
- frozen desserts
- dessert mixes
They can play an important role in achieving and maintaining an active, healthy lifestyle. Low calorie sweeteners enable us to increase the palatability of healthy and low calorie foods and to enjoy the same level of sweetness as with products containing sugar, without the equivalent calories. If used consistently to reduce calories, they can act as an aid to weight reduction, weight maintenance and oral health.
Furthermore, as low calorie sweeteners do not affect insulin levels, they may be used to provide sweet-tasting foods and drinks for people who must carefully monitor carbohydrate intake, such as those with diabetes.
Low calorie sweeteners have been safely used and enjoyed by consumers all over the world for more than a century. The first commonly used low calorie sweetener, saccharin, was discovered in 1879. Since then, a number of other low calorie sweeteners, including acesulfame K (ace-K), aspartame, cyclamate and sucralose, have been discovered and are now in widespread use worldwide.
What is sweetness?
Sweet means “pleasing” to the taste and sweetness is the pleasure or enjoyment that comes from food that tastes sweet. The desire for the pleasure of sweetness has a strong influence on what people choose to eat and drink.
Throughout history people have sought out foods with sweet taste. For example, drawings on the walls of Egyptian tombs show bee-keepers collecting honey and that sugar cane was grown in India some 2000 years ago.
Today, sucrose, or table sugar, is the taste standard by which all other sweeteners are measured. Some sweeteners, like sugar, contain calories. And some are low calorie or calorie-free.
Is it natural for people to desire foods and beverages that taste sweet?
People prefer foods and beverages that taste sweet. And they tend to avoid things that taste bitter.
This preference for sweetness begins at birth. Early man may have relied on this innate preference for survival: sweet fruits, berries and vegetables tend to be safe to eat, and sometimes bitter foods are dangerous to eat.
The natural desire for sweetness and the consumption habits that come from our culture and experience, all influence what people choose to eat and drink throughout life.
Are sweet foods OK to eat?
Sweet foods provide pleasure, and they also help improve food acceptance and palatability. With the abundance of affordable food in many parts of the world today, people often eat too much food and can therefore consume too many calories.
Fortunately, there are several ways that sweet foods can fit into a calorie-balanced and healthy lifestyle. Using low calorie sweeteners is one way that people can have the pleasure of sweetness without too many calories.
Can a healthy diet include sweet foods and beverages?
A healthy diet provides all of the essential nutrients that your body needs to promote and support a fit and active life and reduce your risk of chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes or cancer.
A healthy diet includes a variety of foods: cereals and grains; fruits and vegetables; protein foods such as meats, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and vegetables; milk and other dairy products like cheese or yoghurt; and small amounts of fats and oils. A diet that includes moderate amounts of sweet foods adds positive value to the eating experience by improving taste and palatability.
What are low calorie sweeteners?
Low calorie sweeteners provide a sweet taste without calories, or with very few calories. Most low calorie sweeteners are not digested by the body and provide no calories. An exception is aspartame, which is metabolised naturally. But since aspartame is approximately 200 times sweeter than sucrose, only a tiny amount of aspartame (1/10 of a kilocalorie) is needed to equal the sweetness of a teaspoon of sugar (16 kilocalories).
Low calorie sweeteners are also called:
- “non-nutritive sweeteners”
- “intense sweeteners”
- “high intensity sweeteners”
- “high potency sweeteners”
- “alternative sweeteners”
What are the benefits of using low calorie sweeteners?
- Low calorie sweeteners provide consumers with calorie-smart choices that give pleasure. Low calorie sweeteners give weight-conscious and calorie-conscious consumers products that satisfy their desire for sweet pleasure without extra calories.
- Low calorie sweeteners have been shown to play a useful role in helping people lose and maintain weight as part of a fit and healthy lifestyle. Preventing obesity is an important factor in reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes or non-insulin dependent diabetes (NIDDM).
- Low calorie sweeteners are also beneficial in the management of and the reduction of dental caries (tooth decay). Since low calorie sweeteners cannot be used by oral bacteria that cause tooth decay, foods and beverages sweetened with low calorie sweeteners aid in the promotion of dental health.
- Low calorie sweeteners are also used in oral hygiene products for the same reason.
Are they safe to use?
All approved sweeteners are safe for use by the consumer. Safety is the number one concern of low calorie sweetener manufacturers, food and beverage producers, regulatory bodies and consumers. A newly discovered sweetener goes through years of research and development to ensure that it’s safe.
What foods and beverages are now available with low calorie sweeteners?
The wide variety of reduced-calorie and light products that consumers enjoy today would not be possible without low calorie sweeteners.
Calorie-conscious consumers savour sweet pleasures from:
- Soft drinks and table-top sweeteners (the biggest applications of low calorie sweeteners)
- Dairy products such as yoghurt and ice cream
- Chewing gums
- Condiments such as salad dressings, mustards and sauce
- And many other products including chewable multi-vitamins and dietary pharmaceutical products
Do the calories saved by using these products really help people lose weight?
- To lose weight, a person has to eat fewer calories than his/her body burns. Low calorie sweeteners reduce calorie intake.
- Replacing 4tsp of sugar per day with a low calorie sweetener, in tea and coffee for example, saves an average amount of energy per year equal to 3kg of fat tissue.
- Studies have shown that a small reduction in body weight can substantially reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and cancer.