All the sweetness but none of the kJs – artificial sweeteners appear to be a dieter’s dream ticket. But could they be doing us more harm than good?
Diet. Low kJ. Sugar free. If you're trying to shift the pounds, these are some of the labels you may look out for in the supermarket aisles. And, if you do, it's likely that you're munching your way through lots of artificial sweeteners.
These sugar substitutes are sold as a 'guilt-free' alternative to sugar-laden foods, providing up to 1,300 times the sweetness of the real thing, but with none of the kilojoules. This means, we are told, that we can have our cake and eat it. It seems too good to be true and, according to some scientists, it is.
Concern has been rising about the health effects of sweeteners.
They've been scrutinised by scientists, consumers and campaigners,
with many calling for them to be removed from our shelves. Various
studies have linked sweeteners with cancers, liver damage, nausea
and headaches. So, should you be worried? Well we've made it our
mission to get you up to speed on the common sweeteners you'll see
in the supermarket…
Where is it? Yoghurts, ice cream, sweets and confectionary, desserts, soft drinks and some medicines (such as cough drops).
What is it? A derivative of two amino acids that has 200 times the sweetness of sugar.
What's the research? Aspartame is possibly the most controversial of the sweeteners, and many campaigners and scientists argue that it should be banned from food. It has been associated with increased cancer risk and migraines. An Italian study found that rats fed with aspartame experienced a significant increase in malignant tumours and other cancers. And a 1997 study linked aspartame in chewing gum with increased incidence of migraines. However the European Food Safety Authority suggests that there is not enough research to restrict its use below an acceptable daily intake of 0-4mg per kg of body weight.
Where is it? 'Ace K' is often used alongside other sweeteners, to reduce bitter aftertastes. It's found in a vast range of food and drinks such as desserts, yoghurts, baked goods, sauces, sweets, soft drinks and mints.
What is it? A potassium salt that's around 200 times sweeter than sugar, contains no kilojoules and is not metabolised by the body.
What's the research? Concerns largely relate to its interaction with DNA, after studies on mice showed that high doses produced genetic damage. Some scientists believe it could be carcinogenic, but the EU Scientific Committee on Food did not substantiate claims of negative health effects and recommended a daily intake of 0-9mg per kg of body weight.
Where is it? Soft drinks, chewing gum, preserves, sauces, puddings and cosmetic products such as tooth paste and mouthwash.
What is it? A chemical sugar substitute that contains no kilojoules, but is around 300 times sweeter than sugar. It is thought not to be absorbed by the body, and as such is recognised as safe for use in foods and products.
What's the research? Studies have shown both positive and negative results. Canadian research found that rats that fed on saccharin had a higher risk of bladder cancer, which led Canada to ban saccharin in 1977. According to EU standards, the recommended daily intake of saccharin is no more than 0-5mg per kg of body weight.
Where is it? Sucralose is commonly used as a sugar substitute and is also found in many fruit juices, chewing gum, soft drinks and gelatine products.
What is it? A chlorinated sugar that is not digested by the body and contains no kilojoules,but has 600 times the sweetness of normal sugar.
What's the research? Few negative effects have been seen in relation to this particular sweetener but a 2006 study suggested that it could have a significant impact on migraines. Sucralose is permitted to be used in a wide range of foods and has a recommended daily intake of 0-15mg per kg of body weight.
Looking for ways to go sweet naturally? Try these natural alternatives:
Dried fruits: Add a handful of dried fruit - packed with vitamins, minerals and fibre - to breakfast cereals and desserts. Always try to choose those with no added sugar.
Agave nectar: This honey-like syrup derives its sweetness from natural fruit sugars and has a lower GI than honey and sugar. It dissolves easily in hot and cold drinks, making it great for an occasional sweet swig.
Honey: This sweet treat is a source of vitamin B6, riboflavin, iron and manganese, making it preferable to refined sugars. It's great on toast or, as a treat, added to cereals or smoothies. Use sparingly and try not to heat it as this can destroy some beneficial nutrients.
Coconut sugar: Obtained from the flowers of a coconut, this has a low GI and plenty of vitamins and minerals. Use it in baking and cooking and as a sugar substitute in coffee and tea.
Clarified apple juice: Apple juice with the starch and pectin removed is super sweet and contains infection-fighting antioxidants as an added bonus. Stir into muesli and porridge, or use it to sweeten cakes.