Each week, it seems a different nutritional topic – sweeteners, caffeine, food coloring, salt, carbs, or fat – is in the headlines. Is it good for you? Should you avoid it? Usually the advice changes before you can get to the grocery store. It’s no wonder people are confused. They sometimes go to extremes and cut certain foods and ingredients from their diets altogether.
Low-calorie sweeteners, specifically, have come under fire. People don’t understand these ingredients are well-studied. Even regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognized them to be safe. We spoke with Liz Applegate, Ph.D. to answer some key questions about sweeteners. Applegate is director of sports nutrition at the University of California at Davis, author, IFIC advisor and writer of the Fridge Nutrition blog and monthly column for Runner’s World.
Q: First off, why do we even need low-calorie sweeteners?
A: Low-calorie sweeteners provide sweetness without adding calories or carbohydrates. They’re a great tool for people looking to manage their weight. Moreover, people with diabetes may find these sweeteners helpful as they look to control their blood glucose levels. The bottom line is low-calorie sweeteners are good options to reduce calorie and sugar intake while enjoying a sweet taste.
Q: Is one low-calorie sweetener better than another?
A: Several low-calorie sweeteners are found in foods and drinks. They share more in common than you might think. All sweeteners – sucralose, aspartame, stevia or others – are proven safe by scientific research as well as by the FDA. They can help people looking to manage their calories.
Each low-cal sweetener carries its own unique characteristics and can be used for different purposes. For instance, some are heat stable, such as sucralose, making them great for baking or cooking. Others low-calorie sweeteners are not. Some may even taste sweeter than others.
Q: Are all low-calorie sweeteners safe for adults and children?
A: Yes. These ingredients have been safely used and enjoyed by people, including children, all over the world for more than a century.
In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) re-confirmed the low-calorie sweetener aspartame is safe for the general population, including infants and children, based on a full review of existing scientific data on aspartame. There is one exception. People born with a rare condition called phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot metabolize phenylalanine (an amino acid). They should avoid aspartame, which also contains this amino acid. PKU is generally diagnosed at birth during routine newborn blood tests. This condition requires a variety of foods containing phenyalanine be limited or avoided in the diet.
Q: Do low-calorie sweeteners help or hurt with weight maintenance?
A: Leading health organizations, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Heart Association, agree foods and beverages containing low-calorie sweeteners can help with weight management, particularly when used in place of full-calorie alternatives as they have little to no calories. Studies have also shown that foods and beverages with low-calorie sweeteners can be part of a weight loss plan. Learn more here.
Q: Do low-calorie sweeteners change people’s sensitivity to sweetness or sweet tastes?
A: While this notion has been suggested by some, the data do not support it. More research is needed on the topic. So far we’ve seen that low-calorie sweeteners do not cause sweet cravings.
A 2014 review article found most published studies show no consistent association with consumption of low-calorie sweeteners and sweet foods. In fact, many studies report a reduction in intake of sugar-containing foods.
The net/net: There is a lot of misinformation on the internet about low-calorie sweeteners. Hopefully, these answers help clear up the confusion and allow you to enjoy the flexibility and sweet taste of these great sweetener options. Low-calorie sweeteners help make managing weight a little sweeter.
For more information on low-calorie sweeteners, check out: