May 22, 2023

How Sweet It Is: All About Sweeteners


Whether it's to cut down on the number of calories they consume or any of a variety of other reasons, some people choose sweeteners other than sugar. Sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and stevia-derived substances, for example, are widely used ingredients in foods and beverages marketed as "sugar-free" or "diet." Some of the products also are available for use at home for baking or cooking or to sweeten coffee, tea, or other beverages. You may have heard these sweeteners called sugar substitutes.

Some sweeteners are made to be many times sweeter than sugar, so you don't need to use much. That means sweeteners, unlike sugar, honey, or molasses, add few or no calories to the foods and beverages they flavor. Also, sweeteners generally do not raise blood sugar levels.

Sweeteners, like other ingredients added to food in the U.S., must be safe for consumption under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

Companies that want to market a new food additive, or use an already approved one in a different way, must first seek approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA determines if the ingredient is safe for its intended use based on the latest available science. The agency also establishes an acceptable daily intake (ADI) level. An ADI is the amount of a substance considered safe to consume each day over the course of a person's lifetime.

Under the law, an ingredient does not have to go through the FDA's food additive approval process before marketing if the use of the ingredient is "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) by appropriate qualified experts. The use of an ingredient that is GRAS must meet the same safety standards as an FDA-approved food additive. If a company concludes that the specific use of a sweetener is GRAS, they may submit their information to the FDA through the FDA's GRAS Notification Program.

Since the 1970s, the FDA has approved six sweeteners as food additives. These sweeteners are 200 to 20,000 times sweeter than sugar, depending on the product's makeup.

Scientific evidence has continued to support the FDA's determination that aspartame is safe for the general population when used under the approved conditions of use. However, people with a rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU) should avoid or restrict aspartame. It contains an amino acid called phenylalanine, which can build up in people with PKU because their bodies have a hard time processing it. Newborns are routinely tested for PKU using a "heel-prick" test before they leave the hospital.

Foods containing aspartame must include a statement to inform people with PKU that the product contains phenylalanine.

For more information, please see, Aspartame and Other Sweeteners in Food.

In addition to the six sweeteners approved as food additives, uses of three sweeteners are generally recognized as safe. They are made from plants or fruits and, like the approved food additives, are many times sweeter than sugar. They are:

Sugar alcohols are another type of sweetener. Sugar alcohols are as sweet, or less sweet, than sugar and are slightly lower in calories.

Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that are like sugar and alcohol (not the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages). Sugar alcohols do not promote tooth decay or cause a sudden increase in blood glucose. They are used primarily in sugar-free candies, cookies, and chewing gums.

Examples include sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, erythritol, and maltitol.

Other ingredients you may find on the food label are sugars that are metabolized differently than traditional sugars like sucrose.

While these sugars meet the chemical definition of a sugar, they are used by the body (metabolized) differently than traditional sugars. D-allulose (also referred to as D-psicose), D-tagatose, and isomaltulose are generally recognized as safe.

While these sweeteners are considered safe for their intended uses, some people may have a particular sensitivity or adverse reaction to any food substance. Talk with your health care professional if you are concerned about a negative food reaction.

In addition, the FDA encourages people to report any adverse events through MedWatch, the FDA's safety information and adverse event reporting program.