Skip to main content

The truth about sweeteners

Lower or no calorie sweeteners are substances used instead of sugar to sweeten foods and drinks.

They're found in products such as drinks, desserts and ready meals, cakes, chewing gum and toothpaste.

Sweeteners approved for use in the UK include:

  • acesulfame K (E950)
  • aspartame (E951)
  • erythritol (E968)
  • saccharin (E954)
  • sorbitol (E420)
  • steviol glycosides (E960)
  • sucralose (E955)
  • xylitol (E967)

You can find a full list of all food additives, including all sweeteners, authorised for use in Great Britain on the Food Standards Agency website.

Are sweeteners safe?

All sweeteners in Great Britain undergo a rigorous safety assessment before they can be used in food and drink. All approved sweeteners are considered a safe and acceptable alternative to using sugar. The law determines how much sweetener can be used and in which products.

As part of the evaluation process, the government sets an acceptable daily intake (ADI), which is the maximum amount considered safe to consume each day over the course of your lifetime.

You do not need to keep track of how much sweetener you consume each day, as our eating habits are factored in when specifying where, and in what quantity, sweeteners can be used.

Sweeteners and health

Lower calorie and no calorie sweeteners will not necessarily make a food or drink healthy but can be helpful in reducing your sugar intake. High sugar intakes increase the risk of tooth decay. Therefore, the use of no calorie sweeteners in food and drink, as long as the product does not contain any sugars, can help reduce the risk of tooth decay.

However, carbonated drinks are associated with dental erosion due to their acid content, regardless of whether they contain sugar, lower calorie sweeteners or no calorie sweeteners.

In general, everyone should be eating less sugar but lower or no calorie sweeteners can be a useful alternative for people who want to reduce their sugar intake, while maintaining a sweet taste.

The findings from research into sweeteners and health is mixed.

Evidence from short term trials on drinks sweetened with no calorie sweeteners show that when they are consumed instead of sugary drinks, they can support lowering of energy intake and weight gain. There is no evidence sweeteners stimulate appetite in humans.

Evidence from longer term observational studies on weight show conflicting results but this type of research is limited and the findings cannot be directly linked to sweetener intake.

There have been reports that the use of sweeteners is linked to other health issues but the evidence base for this is limited. Cancer Research UK has said sweeteners do not cause cancer.

The sweetener aspartame is not suitable for people with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare inherited condition. This is because aspartame contains phenylalanine, which people with PKU cannot metabolise. If a product contains aspartame, the ingredients list will include aspartame or its E number E951. There will also be a separate warning on the product label that it contains a source of phenylalanine. People with PKU should check food labels for this warning.

Some sweeteners known as polyols (such as sorbitol, xylitol and erythritol) can have a laxative effect if consumed in large amounts. Some foods contain polyols naturally, such as certain fruits and vegetables. If polyols added to a food or drink make up more that 10% of a product, the product label must state that excessive consumption may produce laxative effects.

Page last reviewed: 20 February 2023
Next review due: 20 February 2026