Easy availability of high fat and sugar dense foods coupled with increased purchasing power and decreased physical activity is contributing to the growing epidemic of non-communicable diseases like diabetes in India. Changing dietary choices is also paving the way for the growing consumption of artificial sweeteners among Indians.
Approved Artificial Sweeteners
Sweeteners may be used not only to impart the proper taste, but also to influence on consumers’ health. They can be classified due to their origin (natural or synthetic agents), the technological function (sweeteners and fillers), texture (powders and syrups), and nutritional value (caloric and non-caloric). The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved six high intensity sweeteners for use as food additives (acesulfame-potassium (Ace-K), advantame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin and sucralose). In addition, stevioside (certain steviol glycosides obtained from the leaves of the stevia plant - Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni) and rebausioside A (extract from Siraitia grosvenorii Swingle fruit commonly known as monkfruit) are considered generally recognized as safe (GRAS) (USFDA, 2014). The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has approved the use of five artificial sweeteners - Aspartame (Methyl ester), Acesulfame K, Sucralose and Saccharin Sodium and Neotame as well as Stevia.
Saccharin is the world’s oldest artificial sweetener. It is a safe low calorie substitute that has been tested and validated in many countries for over a century. It is about 300-400 times as sweet as natural sugar, but sometimes exhibits a bitter after-taste. Saccharin sodium is recommended by FSSAI for use in several foodstuffs at specific maximum permitted levels e.g. soft drinks, pan masala, traditional sweets, chocolate, sugar based/sugar free confectionery, and chewing gum/bubble gum.
Aspartame is a low-calorie, artificial sweetener that is 200 times as sweet as natural sugar. Aspartame is recommended by FSSAI for use in foodstuffs such as soft drinks, biscuits, cakes and pastries, traditional sweets, jam, jellies and marmalades, chocolate, chewing gum/bubble gum, fruit/vegetable nectars, ice cream, frozen dessert and puddings, flavored milk and yoghurt, ready to serve tea/coffee based beverages, sugar based/sugar free confectionery at the maximum permitted levels laid down by FSSAI. Aspartame, with reference to its safety, has been very controversial, since its approval in 1981. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) finally concluded in 2013 that aspartame was safe for human consumption, including pregnant women and children. However, since its breakdown products include phenylalanine, aspartame must be avoided by phenylketonuriacs (PKU), and must be labeled “contains a source of phenylalanine”. It acceptable daily intake is 40mg/kg body weight.
Acesulfame potassium, also known as Acesulfame K (Ace-K), is a calorie-free sweetener that is up to 200 times sweeter than natural sugar and as sweet as aspartame. It is often blended with sucralose and used to decrease the bitter aftertaste of aspartame. Currently, acesulfame K is regarded as safe and at recommended levels of consumption, is not toxic, nor carcinogenic, as earlier claimed by some critics. It’s acceptable daily intake is 9mg/kg body weight. Acesulfame potassium is recommended by FSSAI for use in foodstuffs at the maximum permitted levels - soft drinks, biscuits, cakes and pastries, traditional sweets, chocolate, sugar based/ sugar free confectionery, chewing gum/ bubble gum, ready to serve tea/coffee based beverages, ice lollies / ice candy, fruit nectars.
Sucralose is a calorie-free artificial sweetener derived from sucrose and is up to 650 times sweeter than natural sugar. Sucralose does not have any bitter aftertaste, and is recommended for use by FSSAI at specified levels in a wide variety of food stuffs, including soft drinks, chewing gum, bakery products, traditional sweets, frozen desserts and ice creams, jam, jellies and marmalades, confectionary, ready to serve tea/coffee based beverages, vegetable juice/nectar, and custard powder/ ready to eat custard dessert. Sucralose does not have any appreciable effects on blood glucose levels and can be used by diabetics, as recommended by EFSA (2011). It’s acceptable daily intake is 15mg/kg body weight.
Neotame is an artificial sweetener derived from aspartame that has been approved in 2002 for use in food and drink products, but its use has been largely limited. It is extremely potent, rapidly metabolized, completely excreted from the body. Judging by the chemicals used to manufacture neotame, it appears to be toxic, although it is proposed that toxicity does not arise at the minute amounts that is required to sweeten food products. Neotame is 7,000-13,000 times sweeter than natural sugar and 30-60 times sweeter than aspartame. Neotame is recommended by FSSAI for use in soft drinks only at a maximum permitted level of 33 ppm.
Steviol glycosides are obtained from Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, a shrub of the Asteraceae family. There are over 30 different steviol glycosides, but the most commonly known are stevioside and rebaudioside A, which are commercially produced. According to JECFA (Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization’s Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives) steviol glycosides are safe for human consumption as a non-medical ingredient up to 4 mg/kg b.w./day. They also have been approved by the European Commission in 2011 for use in food and beverages and were also classified as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) in the USA.
For all approved sweeteners, various national and international consensus statements reiterate that consumption of these artificial sweeteners is safe within the acceptable daily intake limits.
Artificial Sweeteners Market
The use of artificial sweeteners in developed countries like North America and Europe has declined, due to decreased soft drink consumption. However, regions like Asia-Pacific and the Middle East are witnessing a growth in this segment as there is a preferential shift to convenience foods.
In India, rising health concerns, regarding the harmful effects of sugar, and growing prevalence of lifestyle diseases, like diabetes and heart diseases, are driving people to opt for alternatives like artificial sweeteners. Regulatory approvals by FSSAI with clear cut directions for labelling and claims are also expected to fuel the demand from end-use industries.
In India, while consumption of artificial sweeteners is only 2% in the middle-income group, it is 70% in the high-income group. Till few years back, 90% of the consumption of sweeteners was by diabetics (primarily used in tea and coffee) only for controlling blood sugar. However, with increasing incidence of lifestyle diseases and a corresponding heightened calorie consciousness among the urban population the use of artificial sweeteners is increasing. Thanks to media coverage, the Indian consumer today is more willing to accept the need for such alternatives.
High demand from soft drink and confectionery industries besides the existing pharma demand is expected to act as a growth driver for artificial sweeteners market. The food and beverage industry is increasingly replacing sugar or corn syrup with non-nutritive sweeteners. In response to rising demand for superior taste, low-calorie, sugar-free food products, the number of food stuffs containing artificial low calorie sweeteners has grown markedly in recent years. In terms of artificial sweetener usage, beverages, dairy products, sweets and confectionery are representing the expanding market for the sugar substitute industry. The use of stevia seems to be the fastest growing segment among the artificial sweetener segment, with most consumers perceiving it as a natural and not a chemically produced sweetener.
The sweetener market in India today stands at approximately Rs.150 crores with a projected double digit growth. Considering the number of diabetics and pre diabetics in India, this should rapidly increase. Further, with the regulatory scenario allowing use of sweeteners in several segments of food products, the market is bound to grow. With many food industry giants, as part of the Food and Beverage Alliance of India, pledging to reduce the sugar content of their products in the near future, the artificial sweetener industry in India could witness large volumes.
Dr Seema Puri
Department of Food and Nutrition
Institute of Home Economics
University of Delhi