Sweet Talk: Are Stevia & Other Sweeteners Safe to Consume?

Sweeteners (e.g. Equal, Stevia, Splenda) are becoming more and more popular in the Australian diet. We are seeing an abundance of products containing sweeteners on our supermarket shelves, with new products hitting the market all the time. These products are generally used to replace sugar but are also sometimes used to change the texture of a product. They can be found in many commercially available foods and beverages, or as stand-alone sweetener products.

With many different sweeteners now available in Australia, the evidence for which types are the best choice can be confusing… There are your artificial varieties, natural intense sweeteners and nutritive sweeteners, which is a lot to understand in itself. So, we’ve summarized some of the most important data from Food Standards Australia & New Zealand for you:

Common sweeteners
Sweetener Type Common types Common foods Energy content Advantages Disadvantages Safe levels (ADI)
Artificial Sweeteners Aspartame (Equal) Diet soft drinks, low-fat yoghurt, low sugar lollies Low Low in energy

Little after taste

No detrimental effect on teeth health compared to sugar

Unsafe for people with PKU disorder. 40 mg/kg/day

 

Saccharin (Sugarella) Diet soft drinks, biscuits and baked goods, desserts, toothpaste and mouthwash Low Low in energy

No detrimental effect on teeth health compared to sugar

Has been linked with increased body weight/weight gain.

Bitter/metallic taste

5mg/kg/day
Sucralose (Splenda) Diet soft drinks, low-fat yoghurt, sports drinks Low Little effect on weight

 

No detrimental effect on teeth health compared to sugar

May increase taste receptors, blood glucose levels, and insulin resistance

May negatively impact gut bacteria/health

15mg/kg/day
Natural Intense sweeteners Steviol Glycoside

(Stevia)

Sugar-free confectionery Low Studies show it may have little effect on insulin, glucose levels (unless combined with a high-fat diet) Slightly bitter, licorice-like taste which some people may not like.

Raw Stevia leaves are not recommended for consumption as these may cause kidney damage, problems with blood pressure or interact with other medications

4mg/kg/day
Nutritive Sweeteners E.g. Honey, Agave, high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, sugar alcohols Baked goods, Soft drinks (high fructose corn syrup) High Agave-low glycaemic index of  17 and therefore less of an impact on blood glucose levels Sugar alcohols- can cause gut discomfort Recommended upper limit of 12 teaspoons of added sugars per day.

 

A New Kid on The Block

Food Standards Australian and New Zealand (FSANZ) is responsible for developing the standards that regulate the use of ingredients, additives, colourings, vitamins and minerals, as well as some labelling requirements and foods developed by new technologies. FSANZ sets the acceptable daily intake (ADI) for safe consumption of particular foods, including sweeteners. All sweeteners available in Australia must undergo rigorous testing to ensure that their consumption will not result in any adverse health effects.

Stevia is a sweetener that is in increasingly high demand. And soon demand is expected to exceed supply. The current Stevia products available for consumption in Australia include those sourced from the leaves of the stevia plant or produced by chemical conversion of the plant extract (known as bioconversion). There is a current submission to FSANZ to allow the inclusion of a third type of steviol glycoside, known as rebaudioside M (Reb.M) which is developed by a fermentation process. Unlike its Stevia counterparts, Reb.M has a very similar taste to sugar, with no aftertaste. It is also sweeter than the other stevia products currently on the market, which means you require less of it to produce the same desired sweetness. Because there are very low levels of Reb.M in the stevia leaves, the process to produce it is currently very expensive. So, what does this mean for consumers? Well, if the submission is successful it would mean that a new stevia product would be available with a superior taste profile, and we would likely see this included in a wide range of commercially available products which already use artificial sweeteners.

Should You Include These in Your Diet?

There are definitely some benefits to using sweeteners in your diet, particularly when they are used to create foods which are low in energy and sugar. For people with diabetes, some artificial sweeteners on the market, such as Stevia, have been shown to have very little impact on blood sugar levels. However, studies have shown that use of some other artificial sweeteners can lead to increased insulin resistance over time, so it’s best to consume these foods and beverages on an occasional basis rather than forming a regular part of your diet.

For individuals trying to manage their weight, these low energy foods are a good way to still enjoy a sweet treat without adding extra energy to the diet. However, some studies have indicated that consuming artificial sweeteners may actually trick the brain into thinking the body is consuming a high energy food and this may lead to the desire for more sweet foods and a subsequent increase in energy intake and weight gain.

However, it is important to be aware when of products which state they are low in sugar, as this doesn’t necessarily mean they are low in energy and may still add up to excess energy over the course of the day. This is also the case for foods marketed as low in energy, as they often have little nutritional value. Wherever possible, it is recommended to choose whole foods and a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, dairy and lean protein, leaving some of the more processed foods to be included as occasional snacks or drinks.

To find out more about healthy eating, check out some of our other blogs or contact one of our friendly dietitians here.