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The science of nutrition and healthy eating
The science of nutrition and healthy eating

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4.1 How safe are sweeteners?

There has been a lot of media coverage about the safety of sweeteners. You will note that Table 4 has acceptable daily intake levels for some sweeteners. The majority of people will not go over the safe levels in a lifetime and food products often contain combinations of sweeteners.

There have been risk assessments on low and no calorie sweeteners (LNCS). The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources Added to Food (ANS Panel) carries out risk assessments and provides scientific advice on food additives used as sweeteners, including the amounts which can be used.

The amount of sweeteners used in products should not cause any adverse effects, including cancer, affect reproduction, or cause allergic reactions. They should not be stored in the body or metabolised into other potentially unsafe products.

Aspartame is clearly labelled as not suitable for people with PKU (phenylketonuria).

It is important to note that foods aimed at children aged up to 3 years old cannot contain sweeteners according to EU law.

Many people use products with sweeteners to help with weight loss or weight maintenance. People also feel they are artificial and it is best to just reduce or avoid foods with a high sugar content. This is very much a personal choice but the regulations that are in place support the safe use of sweeteners in the products we consume or use.

Activity 5 Hunting for the sweetener

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes.

Have a look in your cupboards and fridge/freezer and make a note of all the food you have that contains a sweetener.

Which foods have you noticed contain sweeteners? Write your comments in the box below. Click ‘Save’ when you are satisfied with what you have written.

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You might have noticed that sweeteners can be found in drinks, desserts, jam, dairy products, cereals, ready meals, salad dressings, cakes, chewing gum, alcohol, toothpaste, mouthwash and lip gloss, as well as some vitamins and sugar-free medications. Does it surprise you that sweeteners can also be found in non-food items?

You can find more information about the safety of sweeteners in NHS choices [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (2018).

A Public Health England report in 2017 sets out a 20% reduction in the use of sugar in products by 2020. The report states:

All sectors of the food and drinks industry are challenged to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute most to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020, including a 5% reduction in the first year of the programme. This can be achieved through reducing sugar levels in products, reducing portion size, or shifting purchasing towards lower sugar alternatives.

Do you feel it is the responsibility of the food industry to make these changes? Or is it the choice of members of the public to make these decisions for themselves?

You can see the full report on the Public Health England website (2017).