woman adding a sweetner to her hot drink

What’s the truth about sweeteners? We ask an expert

10 Dec 2022

We ask Clinical Nutritionist Alex Glover to give us the lowdown on sweeteners.

Q: What is sweetener made from?

The main sweeteners used in food manufacturing are sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame k, saccharin and stevia, but there are many others. All of these are classified as non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) as they are not metabolizable by your digestive system.

With the exception of stevia sugar, most sweeteners are synthetically made (stevia sugar comes from the leaf of the stevia plant), but this does not necessarily make them unhealthy.

Q: Are sweeteners bad for you?

There has been much debate on whether sweeteners are healthy or not, ranging from concerns over carcinogenesis, weight gain and diabetes.

It is important to note that any sweetener you see in a food product in the UK has been approved by the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA), who review and assess rigorous safety investigations.

Much of the negative press sweeteners get is based on cell culture studies or ones in rodents which don’t necessarily translate to humans. These studies often use massively high doses of sweeteners, which is likely what causes the negative conclusion.

There are many studies in humans showing both safety and usefulness of sweeteners, for example they contain zero calories and are an effective intervention to reduce calorie intake. Emerging data is suggesting sweeteners possibly effect on your sweet taste receptors which is thought to affect appetite, but the data is in its very early stages.

Q: Can I have as many sweeteners as I want?

The safety of sweeteners is based on people consuming them within the upper tolerable intake, which is the amount established by scientists to the maximum amount people can consume daily long term without adverse effects. It would be very difficult to exceed this amount with normal consumption, for you’d need to drink approximately 20 cans of diet cola every day for a long period of time to potentially see any negative effects from sucralose!

As long as you are consuming sweeteners in relative amounts, some in your coffee, a can of coke and a protein bar a day there is currently no evidence to suggest harm.

The main side effect is to your digestive system, since sweeteners cannot be absorbed by the body they can cause bloating, stomach pain and diarrhoea in some people in varying amounts.

Q: Should I just use sugar?

Sugar actually has fewer calories than fat, with sugar at 4kcal per 1g and fat at 9kcal per 1g.

Q. Why is sugar bad for you?

The primary issue with sugar is that it increases the palatability of foods, and when combined with fat (such as in biscuits, cakes or chocolate) it encourages us to overeat. This is what causes the raises in blood sugar and insulin spikes associated with health issues. So, while it is true that sugar tends to occur in tempting high calorie foods, sugar itself is not causing people to overeat.

For tips on how to give up sugar check out: How to give up sugar without making yourself miserable

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Last updated: 30 March 2020

Alex is an MNU certified nutritionist and currently completing his MSc in Clinical Nutrition. He is extremely passionate about evidence-based nutrition, with an emphasis on eating whole foods and regular physical activity. Alex has experience working with clients with a variety of health concerns, from obesity, sports performance, & ageing, he has also worked in store and at our head office, meaning he has experience dealing with a wide range of customer questions and health concerns. His particulate areas of interest are cardiovascular disease, exercise physiology and chronobiology.