UPDATED 13th November 2013
Over the centuries, various foods, like honey or sugar, have been used to sweeten our food. Today, we also have a range of new sweeteners, which provide alternatives to sugar. European Union rules establish which sweeteners may be used and ensure that consumers have access to specific information on labels.
Sweeteners are substances added to food to replace sugar. Some sweeteners, often called “intense sweeteners”, provide an intense sweet taste without calories, or with very few calories. Because they are intensively sweet, only very small amounts are needed. Acesulfame K, aspartame, cyclamates, saccharin, thaumatin, neohesperidine DC, are intense sweeteners. Another widely used group of sweeteners are called reduced-calories sweeteners, bulk sweeteners or “polyols”. These sweeteners provide fewer calories per gram than does sugar (saccharose) while having the same bulk (volume). Sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt, maltitol, lactitol, and xylitol are all members of the polyol family. Rules for the use of both types of sweeteners are laid down in the European Sweeteners Directive 94/35/EC, which covers “food additives that are used to impart a sweet taste to food or as table-top sweeteners”. This Directive does not apply to foods that have sweetening properties, like sugar, honey or maple syrup.
Sweeteners are used as an alternative to sugar for a number of reasons. Low-calorie sweeteners may be used by people trying to lose weight or control their weight. As sweeteners do not promote tooth decay, they can be used to sweeten things like toothpaste and dental mouthwash. Sweeteners can play a role in contributing to the healthfulness of a diet without having to sacrifice the pleasure of eating sweet foods. Finally, certain sweeteners have a technical use, aside from their sweetening effect. For example, polyols can be used to keep things like cakes and buns moist.
According to EU law, sweeteners have to be authorized before use. Sweeteners used by food manufacturers are usually subject to certain conditions of use. That is, the law specifies to which foods authorized and approved sweeteners may be added, and the quantities. Assessment of sweeteners is the same as for all food additives and is based on reviews of available toxicological data. From the available data, a maximum level of an additive that has no demonstrable toxic effect is determined. This is called the 'no-observed-adverse-effect level' (NOAEL) and is used to determine the 'Acceptable Daily Intake' (ADI) figure for each food additive and that includes intense sweeteners. The ADI provides a large margin of safety and refers to the amount of a food additive that can be taken daily in the diet, over a lifetime, without any health problem. In other words, if you exceed the ADI for a certain intense sweetener, you will not suffer any negative effects because this possibility has already been taken into account in the calculation. In certain cases, such as the polyols, the law does not specify a maximum level (ADI “not specified”), but stipulates that it must be used in accordance with “good manufacturing practice”, sometimes referred to in technical specifications as “quantum satis”. Manufacturers must not use more than is necessary to achieve the intended purpose.
In order to ensure that consumers know which sweeteners have been used in the different food products, they must be labelled in a certain way. Table-top sweeteners, which are sold directly to the consumer must be described as “…-based table-top sweetener”, where the blank is filled in by the name of the sweetener used. Foods containing intensive sweeteners are also required to state that fact on the label and to name the sweetener in the ingredients list. Table-top sweeteners containing polyols must note their laxative effects, while those containing the intense sweetener aspartame should state that it is a source of phenylalanine, because people suffering from phenylketonuria cannot metabolise this amino acid.
Addendum 13th November 2013:
- For more information on ADI please visit www.eufic.org “The Basics” backgrounder on Food additives.
- Benford D. (Author), Renwick A. (Scientific Editor), Barlow S., Herman J.L., Walker R. The acceptable daily intake, a tool for ensuring food safety. Concise Monograph series. ILSI Press, 2000.
- Directive 94/35/EC
Steviol glycosides have been authorised for use as a sweetener in the EU since 2011. Steviol glycosides are the natural sweet components found in the leaves of the stevia plant.