Artificial sweeteners

Increasingly, we're turning to "diet", "lite" and "sugar-free" food and drink that use sweetening additives (aka artifical sweeteners) instead of sugar. These additives provide sweetness without the extra kilojoules that sugar contains. But there are some claims that artificial sweeteners are worse for us than sugar.

One of the most controversial artificial sweeteners is aspartame. Advocacy groups have campaigned to have aspartame removed from foods, claiming it is "deadly poison".

Safety concerns

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority, the New Zealand Dietetic Association and the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation are concerned that consumers will worry unnecessarily about the safety of aspartame because of the recent media controversy surrounding it. Aspartame has been repeatedly approved for use by food and health regulators throughout the world. It goes against most of the research evidence to imply it's unsafe.

People with the rare condition phenylketonuria should avoid aspartame. Having phenylketonuria means you are unable to break down phenylalanine, a component of aspartame. All babies are screened for this at birth. For this reason, all products containing aspartame have a warning label.

Nine sweeteners are permitted in the Food Standards Code. These are acesulphame-K, aspartame, cyclamate, saccharin, sucralose, alitame, neotame, thaumatin, and steviol glycosides.

All nine are regarded as safe – although the Code restricts the number of foods they can be used in, to make sure that no one will end up consuming too much of them.

Daily intakes

Food regulators have set an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for artificial sweeteners. This is the amount you could safely consume, per kilogram of your body weight, every day over your lifetime. Consuming more than the ADI over a short period isn't necessarily a health risk as ADIs have safety margins and are based on a lifetime exposure.

The trouble is it's very hard to know how much artificial sweetener you're taking in. Most product labels will tell you which sweetener they contain (either by naming it or giving the additive code number), but they won't tell you how much is in the product.

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