In recent years, a growing focus on health and quality of life have encouraged people to avoid the consumption of foods rich in sugar. With this increased consumer demand, food products containing calorie-free alternatives have become increasingly popular.¹ One of these calorie-free alternatives is an ‘artificial sweetener’.
Artificial (non-nutritive) sweeteners are high-intensity sweeteners that are used to help reduce the caloric and sugar content of food and beverages.² Their primary function is to provide sweetness with little or no energy/kilojoules.³ The low or no calorie claims originate from the fact that artificial sweeteners are not digested or metabolised for energy in the body and therefore no calories are obtained.⁴
There are several types of sweeteners and each have specific characteristics pertaining to their intensity, persistence of taste and aftertaste.¹
Let’s get the regulation basics (boring but important stuff) out of the way before we delve into commonly used artificial sweeteners. It is important to understand that Australian regulatory bodies such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and the Australia New Zealand Food Standards (FSANZ) only approve of ingredients for use in Australian food and therapeutic products which are based on their own safety assessments as well as reviewal of scientific literature from other international regulatory agencies such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), which is an international scientific expert committee administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Thus, the approval and use of artificial sweeteners as per acceptable daily intake values (ADI) is constantly being monitored based on sound scientific advice.
COMMONLY USED ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS
Some commonly used and Australian approved artificial sweeteners include sucralose (955)*, cyclamate (952)*, saccharin (954)* and steviol glycosides (960)*.
Sucralose was accidentally discovered in 1976 when researchers Tate & Lyle, a British sugar company, asked a graduate student to conduct a simple ‘test’ on products of a reaction which he misunderstood as a request to ‘taste’ instead.⁵ This ‘taste’ test lead to the discovery of many chlorinated sugars including sucralose.⁵
Sucralose is about 600 times sweeter than sugar and has no kilojoules.³
In determining the safety of sucralose, the FDA reviewed data from more than 110 studies in human and animals.⁶ Many of the studies were designed to identify possible toxic effects including carcinogenic reproductive and neurological effects, but no such effects were found.⁶
Based on these findings FDA determined that sucralose is safe and approved for human consumption.⁷ The EFSA have also found no link between the sweetener and cancer where it is approved for use in food and drink products across the European Union.⁸
Cyclamate was discovered in 1937 by graduate student Michael Sveda who while working in the laboratory put his cigarette down on the lab bench, and, when he put it back in his mouth, discovered the sweetness of cyclamate.⁹
Cyclamate is 30 to 50 times sweeter than sugar and exists in salt (sodium or calcium) forms.³ It's used in confectionery and many other foods and drinks and is often paired with saccharin in foods to improve the taste.³
Many agencies across the globe including JECFA and EFSA declare their belief that cyclamates are safe for human consumption when ingested in moderate quantities.¹⁰ ¹¹ As a result, cyclamates are legal and a primary source of artificial sweetener in many countries across the world including Canada, Australia, and many parts of Europe. FSANZ conducted a safety assessment of cyclamates in 2007 and concluded that an ADI of 11 mg/kg body weight adequately protects consumers.¹²
Cyclamates have however been banned in the US since the 1970s due to the results of a study which found an increased incidence of bladder cancers in rats exposed to a mix of cyclamate and saccharin.¹² However, the association between bladder cancer and cyclamate could not be reproduced in other animal studies.¹³ ¹⁴
In 1984 the Cancer Assessment Committee of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that cyclamate was not carcinogenic which was further confirmed in 1985 by an independent evaluation report conducted by the US National Academy of Sciences.¹⁵ For whatever non-scientific reason, the FDA still stands behind their original decision.
Saccharin was the first artificial sweetener to be discovered in 1878 by Constantin Fahlberg, a young chemist from Germany who discovered that his bread and his hand tasted sweeter during dinner one night.¹⁶ The cause of this sweetness was tracked back to an experiment he was conducting in the laboratory that day.¹⁶
Saccharin is about 300 times sweeter than sugar.³ It is available in four forms: acid saccharin, sodium saccharin, potassium saccharin and calcium saccharin.³ It is used in many foods including drinks, confectionery, medicines and toothpaste.³
Regarding its safety, the FDA discovered more than 30 human studies which demonstrated that saccharin is indeed safe for human consumption.¹⁷ In 2000, the US National Toxicology Program of the National Institutes of Health concluded that saccharin should be removed from the list of potential carcinogens.¹⁷ The TGA allows for its use as an excipient (inactive) ingredient in many applications such as in listed, over the counter and prescription medicines with certain restrictions (such as listed medicines requiring the warning statement 'Contains saccharin' (or words to that effect) on the medicine label).¹⁸
Steviol Glycosides (960)*
Scientifically recorded in 1899, Steviol glycosides are extracted and purified from the South American plant Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni (stevia) but can also be produced by chemical conversion of the plant extract driven by enzymes which may be made from microorganisms that are genetically modified.¹⁹ ²⁰ The steviol glycosides produced in this way are chemically equivalent to the same steviol glycosides extracted directly from the stevia leaf.²⁰ Steviol glycosides are normally 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.²⁰
Steviol glycoside was first commercially adopted as a sweetener by Japan in the 1970s, where it is still a very popular artificial sweetener to this day. Regarding its safety, the EFSA Panel has considered the available toxicity data (in vitro and in vivo animal studies and some human tolerance studies) and concluded that steviol glycosides, complying with JECFA specifications, are not carcinogenic, genotoxic or associated with any reproductive/developmental toxicity.²¹
So, what have we learnt other than the importance of washing your hands after conducting any laboratory experiments and listening carefully to instructions? That these sweeteners have been thoroughly researched for many years and have been deemed safe for human consumption by many studies when used appropriately.
So, the next time you see saccharin, cyclamates, sucralose and steviol glycosides on your vitamin labels, just remember that they are essentially Australian approved calorie free sweeteners with a long history of use!
*Additive number commonly used in foods as per the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Schedule 8 – Food additive names and code numbers (for statement of ingredients)
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