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Sweeteners in Food

Introduction

  1. A wide range of sugars are available for sweetening foods, such as sucrose (table sugar), fructose, honey and maltose.

  2. In food industry, the use of low-calorie sugar substitutes or sweeteners to replace sugars is common.

What is Sweetener

  1. In legal term, sweetener means any chemical compound which is sweet to the taste, other than sugars and other carbohydrates or polyhydric alcohols.

  2. Sweeteners vary in sweetness but generally have intense sweetness many times that of sucrose. Neotame is 7 000-13 000 times sweeter than sucrose while cyclamate is only about 30 times sweeter than sucrose. As only a small amount of the sweeteners is used, the energy content of the food is reduced when compared with food sweetened by sugars. For example, 1g of aspartame can replace 200g of sucrose, providing 4 kilocalories of energy instead of 800 kilocalories from sucrose.

  3. Sweeteners are used in a wide variety of foods such as tabletop sweeteners (containing aspartame, saccharin or sucralose), diet carbonated drinks (containing aspartame, acesulfame potassium, and cyclamate) and chewing gums (containing aspartame and acesulfame potassium). It is common to use more than one type of sweeteners in a food product because they have synergetic effect on sweetness. Through the combination of sweeteners, they can enhance overall product taste, reduce the quantity used and save on the cost of the formulation.

  4. The most popular applications of sweeteners are:
    - To reduce the chance of tooth decay
    - To help obese people in weight control
    - To produce foods for diabetic

Safety of Sweeteners

  1. In Hong Kong, sweeteners approved for food uses have undergone safety evaluation by international authority i.e. the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) sweeteners do not pose harmful effects, teratogenic effect or carcinogenicity on humans, provided they are consumed in moderation. According to available evidence, no special precaution applies to pregnant women and children.

  2. JECFA would assign an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) which represents the level of a food additive that can be safely consumed on a daily basis over a lifetime.

  3. Among commonly available sweeteners, cyclamate has the lowest sweetness intensity. If cyclamate is used to replace sugar in a can of soft drink (i.e. replacing 35 g of sugar by 1.17 g cyclamate), the dietary exposure of cyclamate of a 60kg individual from one can of soft drink per day would be 19.5 mg/kg body weight/day which exceeds the ADI for cyclamate (i.e. 11 mg/kg body weight/day). Nevertheless, in reality, cyclamate is usually used in combination with other sweeteners where a much smaller quantity of it would be needed. Therefore, usual consumption of foods containing combination of sweeteners is unlikely to lead to the ADI of cyclamates being exceeded.

  4. For other sweeteners that have higher sweetness intensity such as aspartame, a 60kg individual would have to consume approximately 5 litres of beverage (containing 0.48g aspartame/ litre) or 70 packets (containing ~0.034g aspartame/ packet) of table-top sweetener a day to reach the ADI (i.e. 40 mg/kg body weight/ day). It is therefore unlikely that a person may consume enough on a given day to reach the ADI.

  5. Nevertheless, patients suffered from a rare inherited disease phenylketonuria (PKU) are advised not to consume aspartame because they are unable to metabolise phenylalanine (aspartame is a source of phenylalanine ) effectively, leading to the accumulation of potentially harmful levels and can cause serious brain damage.

  6. The use of sweeteners in the local marketplace is mainly on snacks, rather than on staple foods. The dietary intake, and hence the health risk to the general population is therefore not expected to be high.

  7. The CFS has conducted risk assessment studies to ensure the usual consumption of foods containing sweeteners would not pose any adverse health effects to the general population.

Regulatory Control

  1. In Hong Kong, sweeteners are regulated under the Sweeteners in Food Regulations of the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance, Cap.132. Under the legislation, only the following sweeteners are permitted to be used in food: Acesulfame Potassium, Alitame, Aspartame, Aspartame - acesulfame Salt, Cyclamic Acid (and Sodium, Potassium, Calcium salts), Saccharin (and Sodium, Potassium, Calcium Salts), Sucralose, Thaumatin, Neotame, and Steviol Glycosides. These sweeteners should be used under the condition of Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP).

  2. According to the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations of Cap.132, the functional class i.e. sweetener together with its specific name or identification number have to be labelled if any of the sweeteners are used in the pre-packaged food.

  3. The CFS have a food surveillance programme in place for sweeteners.

Advice to the Public

  1. Have a balanced diet and ensure that the same sweetener should not be consumed excessively. The advice also applies to pregnant women and children.

  2. For personal concern and medical reasons over the use of sweeteners, seek advice from health professionals.

  3. PKU patients or people who are sensitive to particular sweeteners should read the food label in detail to see whether the food contains the sweetener concerned..

Advice to the Trade

  1. Ensure the products comply with local regulations, including food additives and labelling requirements.

  2. Observe Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and apply sweeteners in a way that only the amount necessary to achieve the desired effect is added.

  3. To reduce the amount of exposure to each sweetener by consumers, using of more than one sweetener in a product can be considered.

Risk Assessment Section
Centre for Food Safety
October 2010

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