Intense sweeteners

Definitions and presentation of the Agency's work

Aspartame, stevia extracts (steviol glycosides), sucralose and acesulfame K... These intense sweeteners are food additives used to impart a sweet taste to foods. Under this single heading, intense sweeteners are in fact a highly diverse group of substances from a chemical standpoint whose common feature is their very high sweetening capacity. Below, you will find out more about these substances and the work that ANSES is conducting on them.

Intense sweeteners are approved for human consumption as food additives in Europe. Their use is controlled by Regulation (EC) No. 1333/2008 on food additives, which defines “sweeteners” as “substances used to impart a sweet taste to foods or in table-top sweeteners”.

From a chemical standpoint, “intense sweeteners” are highly diverse substances either of plant origin or obtained by chemical synthesis. They all have a sweetening power that is tens to thousands of times higher than that of table sugar (sucrose). Containing little or no calories, intense sweeteners are used in the food industry as an alternative to sugars in some products. These sweeteners are often used in combination in order to achieve the desired taste in foods.

How are intense sweeteners regulated?

Like all food additives, intense sweeteners are subject to an authorisation procedure harmonised at the European level. Prior to undergoing the approval process by the European Commission, additives are submitted for assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). On this basis the Commission establishes a positive list of authorised additives indicating the foods to which they can be added and the maximum permissible levels. Only the additives on this list can be added to foodstuffs.

In the framework of marketing authorisation, the assessment of food sweeteners is the same as that for all other food additives and is based on a review of the available toxicological data. An “Acceptable Daily Intake” (ADI) is determined that maintains a sufficient safety margin and indicates the amount of food additive that can be consumed daily, over a lifetime, without posing a health problem.

A systematic European re-evaluation of all approved additives has been undertaken by EFSA. It began with food colouring agents, in accordance with the request made by the European Commission, and will continue with the other food additives. As sweeteners were assessed only recently, these additives will be re-evaluated last (31 December 2020). However, at the request of several Member States and national health agencies (including ANSES), and further to the publication of recent scientific studies calling into question the safety of aspartame, EFSA has accelerated the re-evaluation of this sweetener. Its Opinion, published for public consultation in January 2013, confirms maintaining the acceptable daily intake of aspartame and its safety at the given level of exposure. This opinion was submitted for consultation by the stakeholders and other interested parties. ANSES also contributed to the consultation.

In its opinion published on 10 December 2013, EFSA concluded that the current Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of 40 mg/kg of body weight is sufficient to protect the general public (except for people suffering from phenylketonuria).

ANSES's role

in 2011, new scientific data on potential health effects associated with aspartame and acesulfame potassium were published. They specifically focussed on a study conducted in nearly 60,000 pregnant women, establishing a statistical association between the consumption of soft drinks containing sweeteners and an increased risk of preterm delivery (Halldorsson, 2010).

ANSES reviewed this study as part of its ongoing monitoring role and sought to expand on it. The Agency therefore issued a formal internal request on 30 June 2011 establishing a working group to assess the nutritional risks and benefits of all intense sweeteners. Through this work, the Agency aimed to provide the first expert appraisal of the nutritional value of intense sweeteners for the general public. This pioneering study showed that the consumption of intense sweeteners has no beneficial effects on weight control, blood glucose levels in diabetics or on the incidence of type 2 diabetes. Moreover, it did not find any links between the consumption of intense sweeteners and habituation to sweet taste, or heightened risk of diabetes or cancer.

ANSES's recommendations

In its assessment, ANSES emphasised the lack of relevant data on the potential benefits of intense sweetener consumption in the context of their broad, long-standing use in nutrition.
It emphasised the need to conduct new research studies on the nutritional benefits and risks of consumption of these sweeteners, especially:

  • in children: studies on taste development, food preferences and the control of food intake;
  • in the general public: studies on weight control.

In addition, specific populations (pregnant women, children, diabetics, regular consumers) have not been sufficiently studied. It therefore appears necessary to further study the risks of intense sweetener consumption by these populations.

Lastly, in a nutritional policy context in which one of the main objectives is the reduction of sugar intake in the general public, ANSES considers that no meaningful data exist that justify encouraging in a public health framework the substitution of sugars by intense sweeteners. This objective of reduction of sugar intake levels must be reached through a reduction in sweet tasting foods in general at an early age. For this, the Agency recommends that artificially-sweetened and sugar-sweetened soft drinks not be drunk in the place of water.