Not so sweet

1 December 2022

Consumers are always looking for a way to reduce sugar or just replace it altogether, and manufacturers are looking to meet this demand while keeping the same sweet taste. This has been found in the form of sweeteners, touted to provide the same level of sweetness without the health drawbacks, but is this really the case? Phoebe Galbraith speaks to Abigail Storms, global head of sweeteners at Tate & Lyle, to find out her insight on the potential health benefits.

Often considered the answer to our sugar-cravings, artificial and natural sweeteners are now a staple in much of our foods. However, the history of sweeteners has not always been easy nor originally seen as an answer to our nutritionary needs; up until the 1950s sweeteners were used as a cheaper alternative to sugar. Interestingly, in the wake of this, a storm of studies and negative health claims followed, with the FDA banning saccharin in the 70s due to reports showing bladder cancer in rats. This was eventually proved to be a side effect unique to rats rather than humans, but suspicion and fears around sweeteners remain, nonetheless.

Now, with the shift towards sugar reduction and a greater focus on health, much of the dialogue surrounding sweeteners hails it as a benefit for nutrition, as white table sugar is considered one of the main sources for the rise in diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases. According to WHO, this affects 40% of the global adult population as well as millions |of children. Sweeteners have often been seen as a solution to cut back on sugar to the recommended 10% of daily calorie intake while encouraging weight loss and health benefits. It is widely considered safe for those with diabetes to substitute sugar with artificial sweeteners and enjoy their favourites foods without suffering a rise in blood sugar levels, for example, though not all studies have been unanimous and more research needs to be undertaken. “Managing the glycemic response is a well-established benefit of lo-and no-calorie sweeteners (LNCS) as evidenced by scientific research,” says Abigail Storms, head of sweeteners, Tate & Lyle. “LNCS are recommended by specialist professional associations worldwide, such as American Diabetes Association and World Health Organisation, as a replacement for sugar for people with diabetes to help control their sugar intake and to help manage blood glucose.”

Remove to improve

With ten years focused on sweeteners at Tate & Lyle, Storms is more than familiar with the subject. Working to drive reduction in sugar and calories, while maintain the same great taste that consumers demand has played a key role in her time at Tate & Lyle. “We understand the importance of taste: our scientists are experts at taking sugar and calories out, while keeping the all-important sweetness and taste that define our customers’ brands,” she adds. “Over the past two years, we removed four million tonnes of sugar from people’s diets through low/-no calorie sweeteners and fibres.”

It makes sense that Tate & Lyle are experts when it comes to the sweeteners industry, with over 160 years in the business of providing the all-important sweetness and taste for the savvy customer. As the market has grown and developed, Tate & Lyle has grown alongside, expanding its understanding and portfolio to make then experts in sweeteners. Discovering the no-calorie Sucralose in 1976, this led to SPLENDA Sucralose product in partnership with McNeils Nutritionals. “SPLENDA Sucralose has since reshaped the sweetener landscape and has, through our customers’ products, helped create a wider range than ever before of great-tasting low-calorie foods and beverage for consumers,” Storms says.

As Storms puts it, the success of SPLENDA is a testament to the company’s commitment to innovation, quality and customer services over the years. The success of sweeteners such as SPLENDA is indicative of the sugar-alternatives popularity in food and drink. According to data from NHANES, it concluded 41.4% of adults were using low-calorie sweeteners (LCS), with 95.5% of adults having tried LCS at least once in their life. “Today, as a global leader in sweetening, mouthfeel, and fortification, we are very well placed to benefit from growing global consumer demand for food and drink, which is lower in sugar, calories and fat, and has more fibre.”

There is no question that sweeteners have evolved significantly in the past century or so, ever since their accidental discovery in the 1800s. Acesulfame K, aspartame, saccharin, sorbitol, sucralose, stevia and xylitol; these make up the sweeteners approved for use in the UK, all of which had to undergo rigorous safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) before they can be used in food and drink. Moreover, the health claims made about xylitol, sorbitol and sucralose, among others, were approved by EFSA as a helpful alternative to sugar.

“LNCS are recommended by specialist professional associations worldwide, such as American Diabetes Association and World Health Organisation, as a replacement for sugar for people with diabetes.”


The percentage of the population that is affected by diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, which white table sugar is considered a main cause of.


Once considered a novel ingredient, sweeteners are sweeping the mainstream and can be found in many food and beverage options, from drinks, desserts and ready meals to cakes, chewing gum, toothpaste and diet soft drinks. The great taste that they provide, while limiting sugar intake, is thanks to the development of artificial sweeteners over the years. “Thanks to new developments and innovation, taste had improved dramatically over the years and sugar reduction levels have gone up, while cost in use for sweeteners has gone down, making it more widely accessible and used in a larger number and variety of applications,” Storms explains. “Tate & Lyle’s deep scientific knowledge in the fields of biochemistry and materials science, coupled with our core capabilities in areas such as enzymology and fermentation, industrial scale up, drying and crystallisation and separation and fractionation have helped us to continuously innovate and create solutions for customers that address growing consumer trends such as sugar reduction.”

The dark side

However, consensus around sweeteners is not all positive, with recent studies raising questions around the safety and benefits that these alternatives pose. In 2014, a large study by the University of Iowa followed 60,000 women for 8.7 years on average and their consumption of artificially sweetened soft drink. Those that drank two or more diet drinks had 30% higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and were 50% more likely to die from it.

“With the advancement of new technologies, even more development and progress in the area of sweeteners is expected, giving food and beverage manufacturers even more options and combinations in terms of taste, functionality and nutrition.”


The percentage of women who drank two or more diet drinks per day, over a period of 8.7 years, that were revealed to have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. The study involved 60,000 women.

University of Iowa

While these finding are concerning, the women participating were often younger smokers with a higher prevalence of diabetes, high blood pressure and higher body mass index. It would, therefore, be too much to claim from this study that sweeteners are the culprit, but it does raise questions around the substance as this is not the first study to raise similar findings – albeit with similar variables. The most recent of which has been a large study undertaken by the BMJ in France, which found links between artificial sweeteners and cardiovascular disease. But, as an observational study, the researchers cannot rule out unknown factors that could have affected these results. Clearly the sweeteners industry needs more concrete studies to answer these growing fears, with the researchers responsible for the study calling for a re-evaluation by EFSA to assuage fears.

Although, in spite of these studies, the low-calorie alternative that sweeteners offer is still hailed as a weight loss solution by many, and Storms agrees. According to her, there is a weight of scientific evidence that shows the use of LNCS’s as a useful dietary tool to support healthy body weight. “As LNCS provide few or no calories, when LNCS are used to replace sugar, they can help manage body weight because there is a net significant caloric decrease in overall calories consumed,” she adds. “Meta-analyses have shown that the use of LNCS favours the reduction of body mass index, fat mass and waist circumference.” Through Tate & Lyle’s portfolio of low and no-calories sweeteners and fibres, the company aims to remove nine million tonnes of sugar from people’s diets from 2020 to 2025. “That’s the equivalent to 36 trillion calories.”

As Storms explains, all LNCS’s that are approved for use by various health authorities worldwide have not only gone under intensive safety evaluations but have also been approved to be consumed within acceptable daily intakes (ADIs). “ADI is a conservative measure of the amount of a specific substance in food or drink that can be ingested daily over a lifetime without an appreciable health risk.

“Because of their intense sweetening power, several hundred to several thousand times sweeter than sugar, these sweeteners can be used in very small amounts and thus it is unlikely that anyone will exceed the ADI value, especially in a consistent manner throughout their life.”

Pick and mix

The consumption of sugar and market as a whole has been declining over the past few years in many countries as result of government policies to improve healthy and general preferences. In its wake, the demand for replacements via artificial or natural healthy sweeteners has skyrocketed.

“A recent US survey found that more than 70% of shoppers choose to limit sugar consumption when buying groceries, which is unlocking more opportunities to use sweeteners. Food and beverage manufacturers are responding to these shopping trends with assortments of new and reformulated products,” agrees Storms. “When examining food and beverage launches with sugar reduction claims, we can see increases in every region of the world, with Australasia, North America, Europe, and Latin America showing the highest percentages of these products in the marketplace.”

“With the advancement of new technologies, even more development and progress in the area of sweeteners is expected, giving food and beverage manufacturers even more options and combinations in terms of taste, functionality and nutrition.”

The Acceptable Daily Intake of artificial sweeteners
If consumed regularly, sweeteners can potentially increase the risk of heart disease.

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