The Low-Down on Artificial Sweeteners

About 10 years ago, our national health authority suggested that between 26 and 34 teaspoons of sugar per day was an acceptable amount for the average woman and man. But guidelines have changed as we tumble toward an obesity epidemic, with artificial sweeteners helping us fake fat until we make it.

What’s what

There are two groups of sweeteners: chemically based ones with no nutritive value, like aspartame, and plant-derived ones with some nutritive value like stevia. You’ll more often see them labelled as additives under numbers in the 420s, 950s and 960s range.

The chemical ones approved for use in Australia are Saccharin (954), Cyclamate (952), Aspartame (951 or “NutraSweet”, “Equal”), Sucralose (955 or “Splenda”), Acesulphame K (950), Neotame (961), Alitame (956) and Steviol Glycoside (960).  They’re also called “intense sweeteners” because Aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sugar, and Neotame, about 7000 times! You’ll consume these if you’re into diet cordials, drinks, jellies, ice-cream, chewing gum, desserts and cakes, for example

The more ‘natural’ plant-derived ones approved here are Stevia (960)

Sorbitol (420), Mannitol (421), Xylitol (967), Isomalt (953) and Thaumatin (957). You’ll find these digits in lollies, mouth washes, toothpaste, chewing gum, frozen desserts and drinks.

Kilojoule killers

Both types have been shown to be low in kilojoules. But the problem is, the types of foods that contain artificial sweeteners tend to be foods which, particularly when consumed regularly and in large portions, are not part of a healthy diet, like soft drinks and fruit juices, or confectionary, prepared desserts, jams and toppings. They may have fewer kilojoules, but they are also known to have less satiating power and energy value.

Which products?

Soft drinks and cordials like to fake sweetness, a lot. This article by Choice Magazine lists a few products like Bundaberg Diet Ginger Beer, Nestle Diet Yoghurt, Coca Cola Zero, Waterfords, Red Bull sugarfree and table top sweeteners, Equal and Splenda.  Highly processed foods are good candidates for artificial sweetening.

The down low ...

The good news is that artificial sweeteners are known to have a low, or zero effect on blood glucose levels, which is great for diabetics.

The Choice Magazine article mentions research that showed a link between cancer in rats taking aspartame and saccharin, but a later review by the World Cancer Research Fund trounced that, saying the rats were fed more sweetener than humans would consume.

Food Standards Australian and New Zealand (FSANZ) will tell you that sweeteners are being consumed “in amounts that present no appreciable safety risk” but it did move to reduce the level of cylcamates used in cordials, fruit drinks and soft drinks. It has also committed to continued monitoring of food additives, like intense sweeteners, given that various research projects have found them to be a potential public health and safety concern in other countries. Saccharin, for example, is still banned in Canada.

One of Australia’s biggest health concerns is obesity. The 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines released by the National Medical Health and Research Council say that if current trends continue, “by 2025, 83% of men and 75% of women aged 20 years or more will be overweight or obese.”

One of the primary factors, it says, is greater access to energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and drinks, which is a key area of research and concern around artificial sweeteners.

Funny thing about sugar

Many people don’t realise that normal food contains `sugar’. For example, one slice of bread, or a one-third cup of cooked pasta, or 300mls of milk, each contains about 3 teaspoons of sugar (when converted in the body to glucose). Sugar that occurs naturally in foods not only satisfies our hunger more efficiently, but the body responds better to that slow-release energy.

Dr Alan Barclay, head of research at the Australian Diabetes Council offers this sane advice on the Council’s website:

“Consuming less added sugar does not mean we can consume larger quantities of other refined foods and drinks instead. If we do, we will in fact be no better off. However, if you use non-nutritive sweeteners carefully, they may be of benefit because they can help reduce kilojoule and added sugar intakes.”