March 2005 Edition
Healthwise: Artificial Sweeteners - Are They Safe?

by Suzanne Berryman, R.D.

Health Care Manager, Sysco Food Services of Atlantic Canada

Research tells us that babies are born with a preference for sweetness over other tastes.  For many of us, this preference continues for the rest of our lives.  But for people who are trying to lose weight, or have to watch their blood sugar because of diabetes, too much sugar can be a problem.   

That’s where artificial sweeteners can come in handy.  There are a number of artificial or 'high intensity' sweeteners that have been developed to add sweetness to food without adding extra calories.  All artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than table sugar, and are therefore only added in tiny amounts to the foods we eat. These sweeteners are extensively tested as food additives, and once they are approved, Health Canada outlines strict rules for how each sweetener may be used and how much can be used in food.   With more and more foods on the market sweetened with artificial sweeteners, the key to using them is in moderation.

There are a number of sweeteners approved for use by Health Canada along with guidelines on the “Acceptable Daily Intake” or (ADI), which is “the amount of sweetener that can be safely consumed on a daily basis over a person’s lifetime without any adverse effects.”  The following summarizes the artificial sweeteners that are approved for use in Canada and outlines several points for consideration.

SUCRALOSE
Brand name: Splenda®

Sucralose is created from sucrose, i.e. table sugar, but has a slightly different chemical structure. It is calorie-free because it is not absorbed into the body. It is approximately 600 times sweeter than sugar, and does not promote tooth decay. 

Sucralose:

  • does not increase blood sugar levels
  • can be used in baking and cooking
  • added to packaged foods and beverages
  • is available in packets and granulated form
  • safe in pregnancy
  • for general population is considered safe, even in large amounts (Acceptable Daily Intake: 9 mg/kg body weight per day (i.e. a 50 kg person could  consumer 450 mg of Sucralose per day, 1 cup Splenda = 250 mg Sucralose)

ASPARTAME
Brand names: Nutrasweet®, Equal®, Sugar Twin®(blue box), Sweet'n'Low®

Aspartame is a synthetic sweetener made up of two naturally occurring amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Aspartame is broken down by the body in the same way as other protein compounds in foods. Like other proteins, it provides calories, but because Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar, only very small amounts are needed to sweeten a food or drink. As a result, it adds practically no calories to the product it sweetens.

  • does not increase blood sugar levels
  • has limited use in baking and cooking as the flavour may change when heated
  • can be found in commercial foods such as drinks, yogurts, cereals, low calorie desserts, chewing gum and many other foods.
  • is available in packets, tablets and granulated form
  • safe in pregnancy
  • for general population is considered safe, even in large amounts (Acceptable Daily Intake: 40 mg/kg body weight per day (i.e. A 50 kg person could safely have 2000 mg of aspartame per day.  One can of diet pop contains about 200mg of aspartame

NOTE: People with a hereditary condition called phenylketonuria or PKU, should avoid Aspartame. These individuals must limit their intake of phenylalanine, one of the amino acids in Aspartame. PKU is diagnosed at birth and is relatively rare.

CYCLAMATES
Brand names: Sucaryl®, Sugar Twin® (yellow box), Sweet'n'Low®

Cyclamates:

  • do not increase blood sugar levels
  • flavour may change when heated
  • not allowed to be added to packaged food and beverages
  • available in packets, tablets, liquid and granulated form
  • avoid when pregnant
  • for general population is considered safe in small amounts (Acceptable Daily Intake: 11 mg/kg body weight per day i.e. A 50 kg person could have 550 mg of cyclamate per day.  One packet of Sugar Twin contains 264 mg of cyclamate)

SACCHARIN
Brand name: Hermesetas®

Saccharin:

  • does not increase blood sugar levels
  • turns bitter when heated 
  • not allowed to be added to packaged food and beverages
  • available as tablets at pharmacies
  • avoid when pregnant
  • for general population is considered safe in small amounts (Acceptable Daily Intake: 5 mg/kg body weight per day i.e. A 50 kg person could have 250 mg of saccharin per day. One tablet of Hermesetas contains 12 mg of saccharin)

ACESULFAME POTASSIUM

Acesulfame Potassium or Acesulfame K:

  • does not increase blood sugar levels
  • not available for purchase as a single ingredient
  • added to packaged foods and beverages only by food manufacturers often in combination with other sweeteners
  • safe in pregnancy
  • is considered safe, even in large amounts (Acceptable Daily Intake: 15 mg/kg body weight per day i.e. A 50 kg person could have 750 mg of Ace-K per day.  Once can of diet pop contains about 42 mg of Ace-K)

SUGAR  ALCOHOLS
Brand names: Sorbitol, Mannitol, Xylitol

Mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol are naturally occurring substances that are less sweet than sugar. 

Sugar alcohols:

  • could increase blood sugar levels slightly
  • provide some calories, so use in small amounts
  • used in to sweeten commercial foods labeled “sugar free” or “no added sugar” (examples - dietetic candies, gum and chocolate bars)
  • are safe to use, but if taken in large quantities in excess of 10 g per day, they may cause diarrhea, gas or bloating.  u

Source: All ADI, Acceptable Daily Intake quantities: “Sugars and Sweeteners” – Canadian Diabetes Association.