Artificial. Non-nutritive. Intense. Low calorie. Sugar substitutes. These words are associated with the sweetening of food – other than with sugar. So, what do they mean? More importantly, how do they affect our health?
Artificial sweeteners can be classified broadly into two categories:
- Non-nutritive (they supply minimal or no energy when consumed)
- Nutritive (they provide energy)
The five common non-nutritive sweeteners used in New Zealand are:
- Aspartame (additive number used on labels – 951): sold commercially as Equal and is most commonly used in artificially sweetened beverages. It is 200 times the sweetness of sugar and degrades at high heat, meaning it is not suitable to be used in baking.
- Acesulfame-K (950): is blended with other sweeteners and is used to improve taste and stability of food products, such as drinks and confectionery.
- Cyclamate (952): is used in tabletop sweeteners and can be used in food because it is heat-stable. It is 30 times sweeter than sugar and is often used in diabetic diet foods.
- Saccharin (954): comes as a mixture with cyclamate and sold as Sucaryl and Sugromax. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar and is used in drinks, foods and as a tabletop sweetener.
- Sucralose (955): is commercially sold as Splenda, which is a tabletop sweetener.
Common features of these non-nutritive sweeteners are:
- contain very few or no kilojoules and are intensely sweet
- have no affect on our blood glucose levels
- do not cause dental decay
These sugars are known as sugar polyols or sugar alcohols. They do not contain sugar or alcohol but are named like this due to their chemical structure.
Common sugar alcohols in New Zealand include Sorbitol (420), Mannitol (421), Xylitol (967), Lacitol (966), and Isomalt (953).They are commonly found in chewing gums, sweets, chocolate bars and mints.
Common features of sugar alcohols
- contain energy (lower amounts than sugar) but are absorbed more slowly and have only a small effect on blood glucose levels
- occur in fruit and vegetables naturally
- do not lead to dental decay
- are approved by the World Health Organisation and are used globally
Affects of consuming artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are an alternative to sugar if we are trying to reduce our calorie intake to lose weight or want to avoid dental decay. However, like all food products, they should be used in moderation. High intakes of sugar alcohols from things such as sugar-free mints can have a laxative effect, cause bloating and, potentially, diarrhea.
Information on acceptable daily intakes of these sweeteners can be found at Consumer NZ.
Recommendations for use
- Avoid relying on one type of sweetener and opt for a variety
- try to mainly use fruit or other natural products to provide sweetness in your food
- include them as part of a balanced diet in moderation to provide sweetness without the extra kilojoules
To find out more about artificial sweeteners and their safety, visit the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand website.
Sweeteners. Diabetes New Zealand. 2016 [cited 13 June 2017]. Available from: http://www.diabetes.org.nz/living_well_with_diabetes/tips_guides_articles/tips/sweeteneres
Jeni Pearce. The truth about artificial sweeteners. Healthy Food Guide. 2007 [cited 16 June 2017]. Available from: