Candy and Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial Sweeteners: Are they a Healthy Substitute to Sugar?

7 minutes to read
Joyce Leung

Joyce Leung

(Research Assistant, BFoodTech)

Evidence Based Potential Allergens

Note — The article was checked and updated September 2023.

Artificial sweeteners play a vital role in the food industry. They are low-calorie or calorie-free chemical substances used instead of sugar to sweeten foods and drinks

Increasing consumption of artificial sweeteners is believed to counteract the effect of excessive consumption of sugary foods and beverages, which has been linked to many adverse health effects, including diabetes, depression, and heart disease.

For us to understand and know more about this topic, we will provide today a full overview of artificial sweeteners: what they are and how they are made, and provide a big picture about the pros and cons of using them and the daily limit dosage.

What exactly are artificial sweeteners

The primary use of artificial sweeteners is to replace the sweetness normally provided by sugars in food. Most artificial sweeteners are many times sweeter than natural sugars and have no energy content

That being said, artificial sweeteners help alleviate the kind of concerns about the consumption of sugar because they are really not present at high levels, while carrying zero calorie contribution to our body as they are not being metabolized at all. 

Such properties offer artificial sweeteners a unique selling point, and food manufacturers are willing to make health claims to promote their “sugar-free” product to appeal to health-conscious consumers.

The first ever artificial sweetener saccharin was discovered in 1879

Since then, artificial sweeteners have been used in many food products, especially in the confectionery market, a 200 percent increase in artificial sweeteners consumption for children and a 54 percent jump for adults between 1999 to 2012 was reported.[1,2]

Functional role of artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are specifically used as part of the sensory modification or improvement of the product

Processed foods and sugar
Source: Frederick Medina @ Unsplash

Being a flavor enhancer, artificial sweeteners are designed to: 

  1. Intensify the perception and potency of traditional sweeteners such as sugar, fructose, and honey
  2. Smooth out sweetness profiles and complement characterizing flavor compounds (i.e. peppermint, ginger, cinnamon, and coffee)
  3. Increase flavor impact,  minimize unwanted aftertastes (eg.  fiery, peppery, or bitter elements associated with an alternative sweetener)
  4. Mask certain off-notes such as the unpleasant taste of metallic ions (i.e sodium, iron, and potassium).[3]

Artificial sweeteners are heavily used to improve taste and flavor which may allow less sugar to be used.

How artificial sweeteners are made

Artificial sweeteners may be derived through two mechanisms: 

1) manufacturing of plant extracts 
2) processed by chemical pathways. 

Chemical pathway is more frequently used, as the yield rate from plant extracts are lower and more complicated. In addition, the artificial sweeteners manufactured from chemical pathway are normally sweeter than natural sugar.[4]

Plant extracts

Artificial sweeteners could be directly extracted through different plant species, either through the root, leaf, seed or fruit part. For instance, thaumatin is a sweet-tasting basic protein extracted from the fruits of a tropical plant, T. daniellii fruits. 

Small fruit with pips are formed from inorescences. A jelly mass with an intensely sweet taste spreads around these kernel pips.[5]

1 kg of fruit can produce 3-6 g of pure protein of thaumatin

Process of extracting artificial sweetener from plants

Chemical pathways

Chemical synthesis and direct fermentation are the main two chemical pathways followed in most artificial sweeteners production.[6]

Types of sweeteners

There is a general misconception that artificial sweeteners are the only available type of sweeteners in the market. In fact, they belong to a bigger category named “Intense Sweeteners”. 

In New Zealand, there are currently 13 approved intense sweeteners for use according to FSANZ. Which could be further divided into four groups as shown below[7]:

Type 1) Artificial sweeteners (High-intensity sugar replacements)

Common characteristics among artificial sweeteners is that they provide a sweetness perception many times higher than that of white sugar. Examples of artificial sweeteners are aspartame,  saccharin and sucralose.

Type 2) Sugar alcohols (Polyhydric alcohol texturizers)

During some of the manufacturing processes, sweeteners are added not just for sweetness but also to provide bulk or structuring effect in the food product. 

Foods like confectionery will often be using sugar alcohols as a way of providing structures of the tablet in effect. Examples of sugar alcohols are mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol and lactitol.

Type 3) Novel Sweeteners

Novel sweeteners occur naturally in some plants and can be extracted to produce a highly concentrated extract. 

Examples are steviol glycosides extracted from the South American plant Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni (stevia) and monk fruit extract (also called luo han guo extract) which is derived from the fruit of a perennial vine native to southern China.[8] 

Examples of other novel sweeteners are trehalose and tagatose.

Monk Fruit and sugar

Type 4) Natural Sugar

There are several natural sugars. 

  • Sucrose – the common granulated sugar. It’s a combination of the two simpler sugars: glucose and fructose. 
  • Lactose – or milk sugar, consists of glucose and galactose
  • Maltose – produced by the malting of barley, is a combination of two molecules of glucose. 

Sugar has the dual attraction of providing quick energy and of being sweet. It is not surprising that sugar consumption has increased dramatically in all societies that have reached a certain stage of development. 

RELATEDSugar Addiction: Is Sugar “Cheap Cocaine”?

Sugars provide about 20% of the energy intake in the USA.[9] But there are problems with sugar: overconsumption is implicated in obesity and diabetes.

Characteristics of the commonly used artificial sweeteners


Physical State


Sweetness (Compared to sucrose)


Acesulfame potassium 

White crystalline solid



Slightly bitter/astringent


White crystalline powder



Prolonged sweet aftertaste; not bitter or metallic

Cyclamic acid, cyclamates 

White crystalline powder



Chemical sweetness with no aftertaste


White monoclinic crystalline powder



Bitter, astringent, or metallic off-taste


White crystalline powder



Delayed onset of flavor, lingering sweet aftertaste


White crystalline powder



Intensely sweet aftertaste

Thaumatin flavour enhancer

Cream-coloured powder



Licorice aftertaste; strongly cationic

Summary of approved and banned artificial sweeteners


Permitted in NZ

Permitted in US

Permitted in EU

Acesulfame potassium





Cyclamic acid, cyclamates








Thaumatin flavour enhancer

Why are certain sweeteners banned?[10,11]

Advantame:  In New Zealand it is banned due to potential to cause late-developing tumors.

Arabinose:  Increases the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

Aspartame: Banned in the European Union because it is a source of phenylalanine.

Glycine: Stimulates and inhibits cells in the brain and central nervous system.

Monellin: It easily denatures under high temperature conditions and loses its sweetness, thus cannot be proclaimed as “artificial sweetener”.

N-Acetylglucosamine: Increases the risk of glaucoma.

Neotame: Tumors, brain and liver damage, and even death, which happened in testing and experiments.

Tagatose: Unsuitable for people who are fructose intolerant.

Codes, numbers, and different names for artificial sweeteners

All additives currently in use, new ones and old ones alike, must be shown to be safe. In the EU, this is the responsibility of the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), a body of people appointed for their independence and expertise.[12]

Each permitted additive has a unique E Number – the “E” simply means that the additive is approved for use across the EU.[3]

The numbering system in New Zealand conforms to the international numbering system. So any number that you see on the back of the packaging basically resembles the same code as the E Number, but invariably without sticking with the letter E in front of each of those additive numbers. Whereas in the US, they use a very different system which is a six-digit coding system.

The table below shows how the same sweetener could be interpreted differently in various countries.[7,10,11]

 US codeNZ codeEU code
Aspartame 325998951E 951

There are various synonyms for the same artificial sweeteners that food manufacturers use during labeling.

This list will help you identify these artificial sweeteners.[13]


Types of Artificial sweeteners

Other Names


Acesulfame potassium

Potassium acesulfame

Acesulfame K





Ace K

Equal Spoonful (also +aspartame)

Sweet One




Advantame Acid



L-a-Aspartyl-N-(2,2,4,4-tetramethyl-3-thietanyl)-D-alaninamide, hydrated

CAS 80863-62-3 (anhydrous)

CAS99016-42-9 (hydrated)


Aclame (Danisco)













Aspartylphenylalanine methyl ester

Equal (Nutrasweet Co.)


(Nutrasweet Co.)

Sanecta (Holland Sweetener)


Aspartyl-phenylalanine-1-methyl ester


Equal Classic

NatraTaste Blue


Cyclamic acid, cyclamates



Cyclohexanesulfamic acid

Cyclohexylsulfamic acid

N-cyclohexyl-sulphamic acid

Hexamic acid



Sugar Alcohol



Erythritol has 70% of the sweetness of sugar but only 5% of the calories



Glycerin, Glycerine



Aminoacetic acid





Hampshire glycine



Acetic acid



Glycyrrhizic acid

Glycyrrhetinic acid











O-sulfobenzoic acid imide

Benzoic sulfimide

Sycal SDI

Unisweet SAC















Saccharin acid form




Sugar alcohol


D-glucitol syrup

Sorbitol is about 60 percent as sweet as sucrose with less calories



CAS 56038-13-2

INS955; E955

4,1 ,6 -Trichlorogalactosucrose

4,1 ,6 -Trichloro-4,1 ,6 -trideoxy-galacto-sucrose










Thaumatin flavour Enhancer





Smart Sweet



Artificial sweeteners effects on our health (and side effects)

Based on the WHO criteria for the strength of evidence, the health effects of artificial sweeteners could be subdivided as: 

  • Convincing
  • Probable
  • Possible
  • Insufficient

Only by achieving either convincing or probable levels would the health effects be regarded as having sufficient and sounding evidence.[14]

Gut health and microbiome

Recent concerns have been raised regarding the negative effects of the long-term use of artificial sweeteners on healthy gut bacteria, which are needed for optimal health.[15] 

On one hand, several longitudinal studies suggest that increasing the dosage of aspartame on rats results in a significant reduction of most gut bacteria such as bifidobacteria, lactobacilli, Bacteroides and clostridia.[16]

Other studies show contradictory results on how the gut bacterial composition of total bacteria, such as Enterobacteriaceae and Clostridium leptum increases after using aspartame. Thus, the potential effects of artificial sweeteners on gut health are still insufficient, as most of the current research was conducted in rats, so human studies are needed before conclusions can be made.[17]

Negative Research meter - Insufficient


Back in 2005, the European Ramazzini Foundation published a study suggesting aspartame could cause cancer in rats when consumed at levels close to the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for humans.[18]

In 2013, EFSA completed a full risk assessment on aspartame and concluded it was safe to use at current levels of consumption. According to the Cancer Society, there’s no reliable evidence linking intense sweeteners, including aspartame, with any kind of cancer. However, results from epidemiological studies are inconsistent.[19,20]

Negative Research meter - Insufficient

Type II Diabetes

A few epidemiological studies show that the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with an increased risk for the development of type 2 diabetes in women.[21] The pathway is by raising blood glucose levels and thereby causing insulin resistance. 

Yet, a meta-analysis that included twelve articles shows aspartame consumption was not associated with alterations in blood glucose, sucrose, and even insulin levels compared to control samples. 

RELATED — Diabetes: Early Signs, Causes, Types and Treatment

In saying that, the bad fat cell, High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol serum levels were indeed higher on aspartame compared to control, which could probably pose harm to the development of diabetes.[22]

Negative Research meter - Probable


Osteoporosis is a health condition that weakens bones, making them fragile and more likely to break

Several prospective studies have examined the association between soft drink consumption and impaired bone mineral content. However, the results are conflicting. The pathway is not exactly known. 

It is hypothesized that artificial sweetener beverages may replace milk in diets, have low pH values, contain phosphoric acid and caffeine, but also that soft drink consumption reflects an unhealthy lifestyle.[23]

Negative Research meter - Insufficient


The role of aspartame in depression and mood has been studied with mixed results. In one study between two groups of participants with and without depression, aspartame has caused adverse reactions in the depressed participants.[24]

RELATED — Introduction to: Depression

Another study showed no difference in mood between those who drank aspartame-sweetened and sucrose-sweetened soft drinks observed between normal weight and overweight women.

Negative Research meter - Insufficient

Association between artificial sweeteners and seizures

Some classic signs and symptoms of a seizure include shaking or twitching, either of the entire body or parts of the body. Besides, sudden falling and losing control of motor functions or even rapid blinking or twitching in the face are reported symptoms of seizures.[25]

Aspartame has been linked to cognitive problems that could cause seizures

However, in several double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, results consistently suggest that aspartame, even in acute dosage of approximately 50 mg/kg, is no more likely than placebo to cause seizures in individuals who reported that their seizures were provoked by aspartame consumption.

Negative Research meter - Insufficient

Adverse effects on neurotransmitters (Aspartame)

Some people have a rare inherited disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU). People with PKU can’t break down the sweeteners aspartame and aspartame-acesulfame salt. 

PKU affects the way the body processes a protein called phenylalanine

If left untreated, since the amino acid phenylalanine serves as a neurotransmitter building block affecting the brain, and methanol is converted into toxic formaldehyde, aspartame will leave deleterious effects on the body and brain, where phenylalanine builds up in the bloodstream and causes brain damage.[26]

Negative Research meter - Convincing


In a cohort study with 60,466 women, it is found that artificially-sweetened beverages moderately increased the risk of asthma and allergic rhinitis both in early and later childhood

These results appeared stronger for carbonated beverages. 

We did not find similar results for sugar-sweetened beverages, suggesting that artificial sweeteners, rather than other additives and aromatic compounds in soft drinks, may play a role in the development of allergic diseases.[27,28]

Negative Research meter - Convincing

Kidney Injury

Additionally, individuals with kidney issues should keep aspartame intake to a minimum, as several scientific researches for publications found adverse effects of aspartame on the kidney function.[29]

It showed that long-term consumption of aspartame led to a dose-dependent increased production of free radicals in renal tissues as well as kidney injury, based on several studies on animals. 

Negative Research meter - Convincing


According to the evidence-based assessment above, at this stage, the scientifically proven effects regarding artificial sweeteners are:

1. They may lead to Type II diabetes. 
2. They
do not lead to seizures.
3. They cause brain damage to PKU patients while consuming aspartame.
4. They increase the risk of allergic rhinitis. 

5. They may cause kidney damage.

Are there healthy benefits to using artificial sweeteners?

While some of the researchers have demonized the effect of artificial sweeteners, making the public perception towards artificial sweeteners to be pessimistic, some of the most commonly used sweeteners’ profile is highly acceptable. 

In the pancreas, aspartame does not stimulate an insulin response as sugar does.

Dental health

The bacteria in our mouth breaks sugar down into acids. Those acids combine with bacteria, saliva, and food to create plaque, a substance that sticks to our teeth and wears away at our tooth enamel, eventually creating cavities. 

Unlike regular sugar, artificial sweeteners are considered non-cariogenic, meaning that they don’t contribute to tooth decay

When we eat or drink something with sugar, the pH in our mouth drops due to an increase in acidity.[30] Artificial sweeteners seem to have the opposite effect, which may help to balance our salivary pH and decrease the amount of decay-causing bacteria in the mouth.

Positive Research meter - Convincing

Weight loss

Some intervention studies show that consumption of artificially sweetened beverages resulted in lower energy intakes compared to sugar-sweetened beverages

A meta-analysis of the 9 studies with weight loss as an outcome measure also gave the appearance of an increased weight loss with aspartame, where both energy intake and weight loss produced an estimated rate of weight loss of about 0.2 kg/week. 

Nevertheless, these compensation values are derived from short-term studies. More data are needed over the long term to determine whether tolerance to the effects is acquired.[31]

Positive Research meter - Possible

Less calorie absorption

Artificial sweeteners will break down in the mouth in a similar way to that of sugar but the other advantage is that they don’t provide the same calorie contribution that sugar does.

To say that they are not digestible is not entirely true. However, they don’t undergo the same digestive pathway that sugar and glucose do, so they won’t be taken up directly in the stomach and small intestine. They will actually get fermented in the gut which means that we only get a partial uptake of the caloric load

Positive Research meter - Convincing

However, they can cause some side effects because of where they are actually broken down. This is why we quite often see health warnings on products that indicate the possibility of a laxative effect if consumed in excess.[32]

How much can you have daily

When deciding whether to include any food additives into our diet, it is of utmost importance that such additives are necessary as well as safe, and a list of permitted additives, together with the foods in which they are allowed and their levels of use, is laid down in the Food Standard Code.[33]

Intense sweeteners

Code number

ADI (mg)

Sweetness (x compared to sucrose)

Commonly found in

Acesulphame-potassium (Acesulphame-K)




Tabletop sweeteners (eg, Equal), confectionery, canned food, oral hygiene products, pharmaceuticals





Permitted in a range of foods





Toiletries, pharmaceuticals, rarely used in food products





Tabletop sweeteners (eg, Equal), soft drinks, yoghurt, confectionery, chewing gum

Aspartame-acesulphame salt




Drinks, confectionery, chewing gum





Tabletop sweeteners (eg, Sugromax Liquid), confectionery, drinks





Canned fruit, drinks, confectionery





Tabletop sweeteners (eg, Sugromax, Sucaryl), drinks, confectionery, medicines, toothpaste





Tabletop sweeteners (eg, Splenda), drinks, confectionery, range of foods

The safe levels of food additives like sweeteners are calculated using a measure called the “acceptable daily intake” or ADI. ADIs tell us how much of a specific food additive we can safely eat each day, over the course of our life.

The ADI for the general artificial sweeteners ranges between 0-10mg

While aspartame has the highest acceptable range of 40 milligrams for each kilogram of body weight. To exceed this, a 70 kg adult would have to drink at least 15 to 20 cans of diet soft drink a day – every day of their life. 

The general rule of thumb is that artificial sweeteners which get higher sweetness intensity should be taken less. That is why alitame or neotame, which have a sweetness potency 1000 times greater than that of sucrose, must be consumed less than 2 milligrams per day.[34]

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends free or added sugars should make up less than 10 percent of our daily energy intake. Its guidelines apply to all sugars added to food and the sugars present in honey, syrups and fruit juices. 

For an adult, five percent is about 25g or six teaspoons

RELATED — Diet and the Brain: Our brain on sugar

A survey commissioned by New Zealand Food Safety and FSANZ suggested average people consume much more than 25g of sugar; while another study published in Nutrients estimated half of Kiwi adults eat about 57g (14 teaspoons) each day.

60 Different names for Sugar

The result urges the need for the public to switch from using normal sugar to artificial sugar for the sake of less energy content per weight.[35]

Related Questions

1. What sweeteners are artificial?
Below is the summary list of common artificial sweeteners:

  • Acesulfame potassium 
  • Aspartame 
  • Cyclamic acid
  • Saccharin 
  • Sucralose 
  • Alitame 
  • Thaumatin flavor Enhancer
  • Advantame 
  • Aspartame-acesulfame salt
  • Cyclamate
  • Neotame

2. Are all food manufacturers required to label any use of artificial sweeteners?
Most food additives must be listed by their class name followed by the name of the food additive or the food additive number. The class name indicates what the food additive does (i.e. its purpose).

Some foods are not required to be labeled with a statement of ingredients, for example, unpackaged food, food contained in a small package (such as a package with a surface area of fewer than 100 cm2). Food additives in these foods are therefore also not required to be labeled.

Sometimes compound ingredients are used in food. A compound ingredient is an ingredient made up of two or more ingredients, for example, tomato paste containing tomato, olive oil, dried herbs, sugar, salt, and a preservative that is incorporated into a meat casserole.

The ingredients (including food additives) of a compound ingredient don’t have to be listed if the compound ingredient makes up less than 5% of the final food. However, if additives in the compound ingredient perform a purpose in the final food, they have to be declared in the statement of ingredients.[36]

3. What is the healthiest / best option for artificial sweetener?
Food manufacturers mainly go with sucralose (Splenda) and aspartame K (Equal), the two well-studied artificial sweeteners with the least dispute. 

In saying that, we would suggest minimising your intake of any processed foods.

4. Can artificial sweeteners be used as an ant poison?
This particular urban legend started with a satirical article published on a website called The Spoof! which was titled, “FDA Certifies Aspartame as Ant Poison.”[37]

In the article, the chief of the Food and Drug Administration reveals that aspartame (Nutrasweet) was originally developed as an ant poison but was changed to nonpoisonous status after it was realized that a lot more money could be made on it as a sweetener rather than an insecticide. 

The article contained a disclaimer revealing that the story was fictitious. Apparently, not everyone read the disclaimer.[38]

Joyce is a dedicated and passionate undergraduate with a keen interest in research and development of novel foods. She is currently completing her studies with a focus on becoming a Bachelor of Food Technology with Honors major in Food Product Technology.

Her personal passion is in finding new technologies and processing methodologies that can improve the existing products in the food market.


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