Intense Sweeteners: Flavor without Calories

“Low in calories” and “sugar free”! For many weightconscious people and those with diabetes, these are sweet messages.

When it comes to sweetness, sugar is “top of mind.” Yet intense sweeteners can deliver sweet taste with just a fraction of the calories, and they’re many times sweeter than the same amount of sugar. With intense sweeteners, you need only a very small amount. See “Sweet Comparisons” later in this chapter.

Intense sweeteners also are known by other names: nonnutritive sweeteners, very-low-calorie sweeteners, or alternative sweeteners. They offer little if any energy, so the term “nonnutritive” is appropriate. In comparison, nutritive sweeteners, such as sugars and polyols, supply your body with energy in the form of calories.

Intense sweeteners can fit into healthful eating for just about anyone. Alone or blended with other sweeteners, they provide sweetness in foods such as yogurt and pudding without adding calories or compromising nutrients. The four intense sweeteners used today won’t promote tooth decay, since they aren’t carbohydrates.

Quintet of Sweet Options

Perhaps no ingredients have been scrutinized by researchers as much as intense sweeteners. Before being used in food or as a tabletop sweetener  they’re first tested extensively to meet the guidelines and safety standards of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Currently in the United States, five intense sweeteners have been approved: aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, and tagatose. But watch for news about others. Approval from the FDA is being sought for neotame, alitame, and cyclamate. If you travel abroad, you may hear of stevioside or thaumatin, too.


Aspartame is about two hundred times sweeter than table sugar, so a little goes a long way! Discovered in 1965 and approved by the FDA in 1981, aspartame was first marketed as NutraSweet and sold as the tabletop sweetener Equal. Aspartame is now available in a variety of tabletop sweeteners.

Aspartame isn’t sugar. Instead, it’s a combination of two amino acids aspartic acid and the methyl ester of phenylalanine. While amino acids are the building blocks of protein, aspartic acid and phenylalanine are joined in a way that’s perceived as sweet in your mouth. These same two amino acids also are found naturally in common foods such as meat, skim milk, fruit, and vegetables. When digested, your body treats them like any other amino acid in food.

Because aspartame contains phenylalanine, people with phenylketonuria (PKU) need to be cautious about consuming foods and beverages with it. On food labels look for “aspartame” in the ingredient list, as well as this statement: “Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine.” PKU is a rare genetic disorder that doesn’t allow the body to metabolize phenylalanine properly. It afflicts about one in every fifteen thousand people in the United States. In the United States, all infants are screened for PKU at birth.

Because it’s not heat-stable, aspartame is used mostly in foods that don’t require cooking or baking. Most aspartame consumed in the United States is in soft drinks. Among other commercial uses are in puddings, gelatins, frozen desserts, yogurt, hot cocoa mix, powdered soft drinks, teas, breath mints, chewing gum, and tabletop sweeteners such as Equal and SweetMate.

Cooking tip:When aspartame is heated for a long time, it may lose its sweetness. When you prepare food with a tabletop sweetener containing aspartame, add it toward the end of the cooking process. Or sprinkle it on a cooked or baked product after removing it from the heat.


Discovered in 1879, saccharin has been used as a noncaloric sweetener for about a hundred years. It’s produced from a naturally occurring substance in grapes. Today saccharin is used in soft drinks and in tabletop sweeteners such as Sweet’n Low and Sweet 10. The benefits? Calorie-free; not cavity-promoting, not metabolized by humans, and safe!

Being three hundred to five hundred times sweeter than table sugar, a small amount of saccharin adds a lot of flavor without adding calories. Just 20 milligrams of saccharin give the same sweetness as one teaspoon (4,000 milligrams, or 4 grams) of table sugar. Because the body can’t break it down, saccharin doesn’t provide energy. Instead, it’s eliminated in urine.

What about its bitter aftertaste? It’s usually blended with other sweeteners to make the flavor pleasing.

After decades of research, saccharin was removed from the government’s list of potential carcinogens. Scientific consensus in the U.S. government’s year 2000 Report on Carcinogens deemed that cancer data on rats were not relevant to human physiology. In the past a few studies hinted that saccharin in very large amounts (equivalent to 750 cans of soft drinks or 10,000 saccharin tablets daily) may cause cancer in laboratory rats. No human studies have ever confirmed the findings. A warning label still appears on food with saccharin until the FDA or Congress removes it. As with any food or food substance, keep moderation in mind.

Cooking tip:Saccharin keeps its sweet flavor when heated, so it can be used in cooked and baked foods. Because it doesn’t have the bulk that sugar has, it may not work in some recipes. See “Cooking with Intense Sweeteners” later in this chapter.

Acesulfame Potassium

Acesulfame potassium (or acesulfame K) entered the food world in 1967. Approved for use in the United States in 1988, acesulfame potassium is marketed under the brand name Sunette.

A white, odorless, crystalline sweetener, this intense sweetener provides no calories. Like saccharin, acesulfame potassium can’t be broken down by the body, and it’s eliminated in the urine unchanged. Again, no calories, and a potential benefit for people with diabetes.

Acesulfame potassium is two hundred times sweeter than table sugar, adding its sweet taste to candies, baked goods, desserts, soft drinks, and tabletop sweeteners such as Sweet One and Swiss Sweet. By itself in some foods, a high concentration of acesulfame potassium may leave a slight aftertaste, so it’s often combined with other sweeteners, both traditional and intense.

Cooking tip:Because acesulfame potassium is heatstable, you can use it in cooked and baked foods. Like saccharin, it doesn’t give bulk, or volume, as sugar does, so it may not work in some recipes. See “Cooking with Intense Sweeteners” later in this chapter.


Of the low-calorie sweeteners, sucralose is the newest and the only one that’s made from sugar. It’s actually six hundred times sweeter than sugar. Discovered in 1976 and approved in 1998 for U.S. use, sucralose is marketed as Splenda.

Unlike sugar, the body doesn’t recognize sucralose as a carbohydrate. It’s been modified to become a nonnutritive powder. As a result, it doesn’t promote tooth decay and supplies no calories, either. Sucralose can’t be digested, absorbed, or metabolized for energy, so it doesn’t affect blood glucose levels or insulin production. Instead it passes through the body unchanged a benefit for people with diabetes.

Cooking tip:Sucralose offers the sweet sugar flavor without the calories, and performs like sugar in cooking and baking. However, sucralose doesn’t give bulk to baked goods. It’s highly heat stable, even for a prolonged time. And it keeps its flavor in foods, even when stored for a long time. Like sugar, it dissolves easily in water. Use sucralose as a tabletop sweetener in food preparation and beverages.


Approved by the U.S. FDA in 2001, tagatose is a lowcalorie sweetener (1.5 calorie/gram) derived from lactose, which is found in some dairy foods. It may be used as a food and beverage ingredient; check the ingredient list to find out.

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