Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a sixth artificial, high intensity sweetener, advantame, for use in the United States. Advantame joins the ranks 12 years after the (previously) most recent addition, neotame, was gives the thumbs-up by the FDA. Other artificial substitutes include Saccharin (Sweet’N Low), Aspartame (Equal), Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K), and Sucralose (Splenda).
These high-intensity sweeteners–so called because “small amounts pack a large punch when it comes to sweetness,” according to Captain Andrew Zajac of the U.S Public Health Service (USPHS) and director of the Division of Petition Review at the FDA–can be used alone to sweeten products or in combination with other ingredients to enhance and extend flavor. In fact, advantame is suggested to be the highest-intensity of all artificial sweeteners. Aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, for example, range from being 200 to 700 times sweeter than sucrose (regular table sugar). Advantame is approximated to be 100 times sweeter than aspartame, its chemical relative, and 20,000 times sweeter than sucrose.
The FDA notes that it can be used in a variety of foods, including non-alcoholic beverages, chewing gum, confectionary, processed fruit and fruit juices, and syrups, among others. Notably, advantame is claimed to be heat-stable (does not break down under high heat), unlike its predecessors, and may also be used in baked goods.
Sugar substitutes are often favored to sugar and natural alternatives (such as honey and molasses) by those looking to satisfy their sweet tooth but avoid extra calories, spikes in blood sugar, and maintain oral health, among other reasons. Given their promise, these products have become staples in grocery and food markets across the country, but not without controversy.
Rumors of adverse effects have long been linked to sugar substitutes. These range from the mild (actually leading to weight gain instead of weight loss) to the severe (increasing incidence of chronic disease). It should be noted that the former may lead to the latter, particularly if taken for long periods of time. Some studies have noted that artificial sweetener-mediated weight gain occurs by priming an insulin response but providing no sugars, which cause hypoglycemia and, inevitably, increased consumption of sweetened and highly caloric foods. Obesity, in turn, has been linked to a host of chronic diseases, diabetes and cancer included. Some animal studies have also previously linked to sugar substitutes to an increased incidence of cancer.
In considering the safety of advantame, the FDA cites 37 animal and human studies examining the effects of consuming the sweetener in “expected amounts” on immune, nervous, reproductive, and developmental function. The primary side-effect in animal studies, according to the European Food Safety Authority, was “maternal toxicity (gastrointestinal disturbances)” during pregnancy. The sweetener seemed to have met all safety standards and was ruled safe for human consumption.
It should be duly noted that advantame, like aspartame, contains the amino acid phenylalanine. It was initially thought that this would pose a risk to those with phenylketonouria (PKU), a rare genetic disorder causing impaired phenylalanine metabolism and increasing the likelihood of neurological damage (especially in children). Products containing aspartame, for example, must bear a warning alerting consumers to the presence of phenylalanine. Because advantame is much sweeter than aspartame, much smaller quantities would achieve similar levels of sweetness; these small amounts are not thought to be dangerous to those with PKU.
A final note: initial tests may not always prove irrefutable safety. Larger, high-quality human trials extending over longer periods of time would provide the best evidence of advantame’s safety.
- Header Image: Paul Scott (Flickr)
- Sugar Substitutes: Health Controversy Over Perceived Benefits – Journal of Pharmacology and Pharmacotherapeutics
- All About Sugar Substitutes – The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer – The National Cancer Institute
- Scientific Opinion On the Safety of Advantame – European Food Safety Authority