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Sugars? Sweeteners? So, what?

As a nation we love sugar-based food and drinks. It is recommended that we receive no more than 5% of our daily calories from sugar however, all age groups consume more than this. With children aged 4 to 18 consuming more than double this recommendation.

Government policies such as the ‘Sugar Tax’ in 2018 have tried to curb this. But we have also seen an increase in the use of sweeteners, as what is often termed a natural, healthy alternative to sugar.

But what does this mean? And what are some ways we can reduce our sugar intakes?

The first thing you may be thinking is… What actually are sweeteners?

These are substances which can be added to food and drink instead of sugar, providing a sweet taste but with a no to low calorie content. But sweeteners are not as simple as you might think!

There are 19 sweeteners approved for use in the UK, some of the most common ones you may notice are:

Name: Found in…

Acesulfame-K Sugar free Hartley’s jelly

Aspartame Diet Coke

Saccharin Tabletop sweeteners

Stevia Some sugar free yoghurts

Sucralose Some sugar free chewing gums

Sweeteners have been approved for use in the UK by the European Food Safety Authority. This provides food manufacturers and us as consumers with various acceptable daily intake values that ensure our consumption does not pose a health risk. Each individual sweetener has its own maximum amount for consumption and its own level of sweetness comparative to sugar. For instance, Stevia is 200x sweeter than sugar!

Another question I hear you ask is why do people talk about Free & total sugars?

Free sugars are the sugars that are added to foods such as biscuits or fizzy drinks, also including fruit juices and honey. Whereas total sugars are all the sugars in our food, these include free sugars and those present naturally in fruits, veggies and milk. It is free sugars that are the hot topic of discussions as these are linked to poor health outcomes such as tooth decay, weight gain and further complications such as heart disease. If we eat less of these our total sugar intake will also decrease.

So, can sugar be swapped directly for sweeteners?

The simple answer is no. As mentioned, there are many sweeteners each with their own level of sweetness and various physical properties.

If we take sucralose* and home baking as an example:

· You would use much less as it is 600x sweeter than sugar

· The baking time would be a little faster

· Yeast is not activated so the dough would not rise

· For soft bakes you may need to add something extra such as honey.

*You may recognise this by its brand name Splenda!

‘Surely the no to low calorie content makes them healthy’

Sweeteners can be used in moderation as a no to low calorie alternative to sugar… Emphasis on moderation and alternative! The issue is that we are overconsuming sugar, by simply swapping sugar for sweetener the issue of our sweet food desire is not addressed.

Much like when we eat sugar-based foods, sweeteners activate a positive dopamine response within the brains reward system. This can lead to the pattern of over consumption continuing just shifted from sugar to sweetener.

If this happens for a long period of time it may result in a reduction of our ability to recognise the naturally sweet taste of fresh produce such as fruits and veggies.

Often sweeteners are promoted as ‘natural’ yet they can be highly processed

Foods and drinks that contain sweeteners may be a low or no calorie option, but they are not necessarily adding anything of value. Take apple juice, often these have a high-water content, flavouring and sweeteners added. If you were to swap this for a glass of water with a large, sweet apple to eat you would still receive the hydration and taste along with a good source of vitamin C, potassium and fibre. Bonus you would feel more satisfied!

Often sweeteners are promoted as ‘natural’ yet they can be highly processed. Take stevia which is derived from the leaves of the stevia plant, before it ends up on our supermarket shelves it must go through an extensive heating, cooling and purifying process to produce the actual sweetener.

Pasta sauce Tip!

Whether it is from sugar or sweetener, store-bought sauces are often very sweet and have lots of extra items added to them. Try making your own by chopping a few tomatoes (skin on as lots of nutrients hide here!) and an onion, add these to a pan on a low heat to soften. Give them a mash, then add seasonings such as oregano & paprika!

You may want to add a little water depending on how thick or smooth you like your sauce to be.


Sugars? Sweeteners? So, what?

· All foods should be eaten in moderation, issue happen when we eat too much of one food group. For now, focusing on sugar all age groups need to reduce the amount that they consume.

· There are many types of sweeteners that in moderation can provide an alternative to sugar. All with their own sweetness, textures and purposes.

· We must not forget! Food is also about enjoyment, there is nothing wrong with a good slice of chocolate cake every now and then!

· But on a regular basis we should be reaching more for natural sources such as fresh fruits and less for free sugar containing foods like chocolate, store-bought sauces or sprinkled in our coffee.

Written by Jessica tidy. MSc Nutrition & Public Health Student



British Nutrition Foundation. (XXXX). Nutrients, Food and Ingredients Sweeteners. Retrieved from

Deliza, R., Lima, M. F., & Ares, G. (2021). Rethinking sugar reduction in processed foods. Current Opinion in Food Science.

European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). (2021). Sweeteners. Retrieved from

Fenton, K. and Tedstone, A. (2015). Expert Interview: New Sugar Recommendations. Retrieved from

Mela, D. J., & Woolner, E. M. (2018). Perspective: total, added, or free? What kind of sugars should we be talking about?. Advances in Nutrition, 9(2), 63-69.

Murray, S., Tulloch, A., Criscitelli, K., & Avena, N. M. (2016). Recent studies of the effects of sugars on brain systems involved in energy balance and reward: relevance to low calorie sweeteners. Physiology & behaviour, 164, 504-508.

NHS. (2019). The truth about sweeteners. Retrieved from

Public Health England (PHE). (2020). National Diet and Nutrition Survey Rolling Programme Years 9 to 11 (2016/2017 to 2018/2019). Available from

Splenda. (XXXX). Baking Tips for Splenda Original Sweeteners. Retrieved from

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