Lowdown on Low- & No-Calorie Sweeteners: Part 1

Guiding Stars updated its guidance for non-nutritive sweeteners on March 18, 2024. Learn more.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series exploring the origin of low- and no-calorie sweeteners and their impact on health. This post discusses the different sweeteners currently in use in the US with a focus on trends in consumption and use. Part 2 focuses on the sweeteners’ health impacts.

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Even if you don’t consider yourself a “sweets person,” chances are there are at least a few sweet foods you enjoy. After all, humans are hardwired (or designed) to like sweet tastes. This is likely because in nature sweetness signals a source of carbohydrates and calories. Research shows that our delight in sweet tastes is universal. Infants can detect, and prefer, sweet tastes—even before birth.

Happy taste buds aside, our increasingly sweet food supply can have some decidedly sour health effects. Tooth decay, weight gain, and heart disease are all linked with a sugary diet (see my previous post on this). It’s no accident—and probably no secret—that sugars are added to our food in large amounts. Currently it’s estimated that 68% of the U.S. food supply contains added sugars. The continued development of low and no-calorie sweeteners has been welcomed by those who yearn for sweet foods and drinks, but prefer to dodge the accompanying calories.

What are non-nutritive sweeteners?

Low-calorie sweeteners and no-calorie sweeteners are sometimes referred to as “non-nutritive sweeteners” (NNSs) because they have few, if any, calories and no nutrients. Another moniker for some of these products is “high intensity sweeteners.” They are many times sweeter than regular sugar, so very small amounts are needed to provide a sweet taste. NNSs have been used for many years as table-top sweeteners as well as in foods to replace regular sugar, honey, molasses, agave, corn syrup, etc. NNSs are frequently synthetic (AKA “artificial”), but there are a growing number of plant-based products, too. These plant-based products may be considered more “natural,” such as stevia or monk fruit sweetener. Note that the FDA does not have a formal definition of the term “natural” as used on food labels at this time.

Which non-nutritive sweeteners are commonly used by food manufacturers?

There are currently eight FDA-approved low- and no-calorie sweeteners in the U.S.

  • advantame: The most recently-approved sweetener is made from aspartame and vanillin. It is also approved as a flavor. Not yet commonly used.
  • aspartame: Used in a wide variety of foods and beverages. Must be avoided by people with PKU—a rare genetic disorder.
  • acesulfame potassium: “Ace-K” is commonly used in diet beverages, often in combination with other sweeteners.
  • monk fruit extract: Also known as luo han guo, it’s been used in China for centuries. Has Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status in the US. Often combined with other sweeteners.
  • neotame: Used in a variety of low-calorie foods and beverages. Is heat stable.
  • saccharin: The oldest approved sweetener in the list. It’s a table-top sweetener that’s also used in beverages, sugar-free candies, canned fruits, and jams.
  • stevia glycosides: Extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant, FDA has granted it GRAS status. Used in a wide range of foods and beverages as well as being a table-top sweetener. Is typically combined with other sweeteners.
  • sucralose: Can be used in home cooking and baking. Found in many foods as well as being a table-top sweetener, often used in combination with sugar.

How much of these sweeteners do we consume?

When the first sugar alternative (saccharin) was discovered in the 1890s its first use was in products for people with diabetes. In World War II a lack of sugar resulted in the general public having access to it. Nevertheless, use of low- and no-calorie sweeteners was quite limited in the food system until the 1980s and 1990s. At that point, a variety of additional sweetener options became available for food manufacturers to use developing “diet” beverages and foods.

A national diet survey compared data from 1999-2000 to a period of 2009-2012. It indicated that 200% more children are consuming low-calorie sweeteners in the second time range than the previous (adult consumers increased 54%). Although low- and no-calorie sweeteners can be found in many foods worldwide, they are in beverages in the largest proportion. In the United States from 2007 to 2010, low-calorie sweetened beverages constituted 19% and 32% of all beverages consumed by children and adults, respectively. Since added sugars were added to the Nutrition Facts label, beverage manufacturers increased efforts to supply lower- or no-sugar products. Hence the supply of low- and no- calorie sweeteners (used alone and frequently in combination) available to consumers has increased.

Cutting calories by reducing sugar in consumables has been the driving force in developing both low and no-calorie sweeteners. And more products use them. It’s safe to say interest in lower calorie, sugar-free beverages and foods shows no signs of declining any time soon.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series exploring the origin of low- and no-calorie sweeteners and their impact on health. Part 2 comes soon!