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No nutritional value found for intense sweeteners in the human diet

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News of 09/01/2015

Aspartame, stevia extracts, sucralose and acesulfame K... Intense sweeteners are a group of calorie-free food additives with a very high sweetening power. While the safety of intense sweetener use has regularly undergone in-depth assessment, this ANSES assessment is the first that evaluates the nutritional value of these sweeteners. This ground-breaking work found that the consumption of these substances had no beneficial effects on weight control, blood glucose levels in diabetics or on the incidence of type 2 diabetes. It also showed that there were no links between their consumption and habituation to sweet tastes, or with a heightened risk of diabetes or cancer. Based on this, the Agency considers that no convincing reasons exist to justify encouraging the replacement of sugars by intense sweeteners in the framework of public health policy.

Intense sweeteners are obtained through chemical synthesis or derived from plants. These food additives are used by the agrofood industry for their sweetening power, tens to thousands of times higher than that of table sugar (sucrose).

In France, the most common intense sweeteners are aspartame, acesulfame K and sucralose (1). They are used to reduce consumption of sugars and their calories, and to aid in regulating blood glucose levels in diabetics.

The use and consumption of intense sweeteners have risen sharply over the last twenty years, probably due to concerns linked to the doubling of prevalence of overweight and obesity (2). While the potential risks of each intense sweetener are assessed before their authorisation, no general assessment of the overall nutritional risks and benefits of these products has been conducted on the European level up to now.


Potential nutritional benefits and risks of consumption of products containing intense sweeteners

The use of intense sweeteners as a substitute for sugar in most cases engenders a short term reduction in caloric intake due to the low calorie levels of these substances and the lack of compensation. However, the available data cover insufficient time periods for guaranteeing that this effect is maintained in the long term. Moreover, studies of weight control in adults and children have reported conflicting associations. Certain observational studies show that intense sweetener use is paradoxically associated with weight gain, although the causality of this relationship has not been established.

The consumption of intense sweeteners was not shown to have any beneficial effects on prevention of type 2 diabetes; similarly, their regular consumption as a sugar substitute does not appear to have any beneficial effect on regulating blood glucose levels.

As a result of this expert assessment, the Agency considers that:

  • with regard to nutritional benefits, the available studies show no proof that the consumption of products containing intense sweeteners aid in weight control, or in regulating blood glucose levels in diabetics or the incidence of type 2 diabetes;
  • for the risks of developing cancer, type 2 diabetes, or premature births, the data available to date do not enable a link to be established between onset of these risks and the consumption of intense sweeteners. A few studies do however highlight the need to obtain further knowledge on the link between intense sweeteners and certain risks.


ANSES's recommendations

In its assessment, ANSES emphasised the lack of relevant data on the potential benefits of intense sweetener consumption in the context of their broad, long-standing use in nutrition.

It highlighted the need to conduct new research studies both on the nutritional benefits and risks of consumption of these products, especially:

  • in children: studies on taste development, food preferences and the control of food intake;
  • in the general public: studies on weight control.

In addition, specific populations (pregnant women, children, diabetics, regular consumers) have not been sufficiently studied. Further study of the risks of intense sweetener consumption by these populations therefore appears necessary.

Lastly, in a nutritional policy context in which one of the main objectives is the reduction of sugar intake in the general public, ANSES considers that no meaningful data exist that justify encouraging the substitution of sugars by intense sweeteners in a public health framework. This objective of reduction of sugar intake levels must be reached through a reduction in sweet tasting foods in general at an early age. The Agency therefore recommends that artificially-sweetened and sugar-sweetened soft drinks not be consumed as a replacement for water.