Sweeteners & sugar substitutes

Sweeteners are derived from natural sources (sugar substitutes) or are synthetic (artificial sweeteners). The majority of these products approved for use in foods are artificial sweeteners.

Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes are low-calorie or calorie-free food products that replace sugar in calorie-controlled diets. They come in granules, tablets and liquid form and are used in a wide range of products from drinks, cakes, desserts and ready meals to chewing gum and toothpaste.

image sweetenersThey all undergo a rigorous safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), before they can be used in food and drink. The manufacturers also have to demonstrate that a sweetener or sugar substitute doesn’t have any adverse effects, such as causing cancer, affect reproduction or bring about any allergic reactions.

With so many products on the market, it can be difficult to know which one to choose. For example, some contain a few calories but not enough to impact on a diet programme.

Others aren’t suitable for baking and cooking and so you will need to check the label for clarification.

Plant-based sweeteners containing sorbitol and mannitol which aren’t totally absorbed during digestion and may cause diarrhoea if used in large amounts.

Reduced calorie sweeteners

The most popular sweeteners are:

Advantame – made from aspartame and vanillin, it is found in a wide range of items including baked goods, soft drinks, processed fruits, puddings and frozen desserts. Suitable for cooking, it is one of the sweetest products available and so only a very small amount is needed.

Aspartame – with only a tiny amount is needed to create a sweetness equivalent to sugar, it adds very few calories to food and drink but loses some of its sweetness at a high temperature and so isn’t suitable for baking or cooking

Saccharin – a strong sweetener that isn’t affected by heat and requiring very small amounts to achieve the sweetness of sugar. Women are advised to use it carefully during pregnancy.

Sorbitol – a sugar alcohol reduced calorie sweetener from plants, used in commercial sweeteners to provide a clean taste and is an alternative sweetener for people with diabetes. It contains around half the calories of sugar.

Sucralose – calorie-free, it doesn’t affect blood sugar levels and commercial products can be used in baking and cooking.

Xylitol – a carbohydrate found in the birch tree, it is used by people with diabetes, with blood sugar levels staying more constant than when using sugar.

Sweeteners for cooking

Most artificial sweeteners can be used in cold and hot foods but none of them can be used in cooking. For example, aspartame loses its sweetness while sucralose is suitable for cooking and baking.

Sweeteners and diabetes

Using artificial sweeteners in place of sugar helps provide a sweet taste without increasing blood sugar levels, making them a useful alternative for people with diabetes, while helping prevent dental decay.

Switching from sugar to sweeteners is just one element of a diet plan, which should include a low-fat nutritionally balanced diet combined with regular exercise.

If in doubt, talk to your GP about any dietary changes you are considering, including the use of sweeteners and sugar substitutes. They can then provide advice based on your personal circumstances.

People often have questions about the safety and health effects of artificial sweeteners. All sweeteners in the EU will have undergone a rigorous safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) or its predecessor, the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF), before they can be used in food and drink. Moreover, Cancer Research UK and the US National Cancer Institute have said there is no evidence that sweeteners are associated with cancer risk in humans.

Sources used in writing this article are available on request

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. Our evidence-based articles are certified by the Information Standard and our sources are available on request. The content is not, though, written by medical professionals and should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands, or treatments.

Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 15 October 2018

Next review: 15 July 2022