1.) Accidental discovery
Saccharin, the sweetener found in the little pink sachets, was first discovered by chemist Constantin Fahlberg in 1879 when he failed to wash his hands properly after handling coal tar. His sandwich tasted markedly sweeter than usual, later realising it had come from his unwashed hands! He tested this the following day, recorded his findings, and introduced the artificial sweetener to the world.
2.) Superior sweetness
On average, sweeteners are 300 times sweeter than sucrose, meaning you need a miniscule amount of sweetener to get the same level of sweetness as you would from ordinary table sugar i.e. sucrose. Neotame for example, approved as a food additive in 2002, is one of the most potent food additives known to man, it weighs in at an estimated 7000 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar) (Kroger, Meister and Kava, 2006)!
3.) Low calories
Sweeteners are non- nutritive, meaning they have no nutritional value and contain zero calories. One of the exceptions to this rule is the heavily scrutinised Aspartame, which contains a mere 4kcal/g (compared to sugars 20kcal/g).
4.) Two groups of sweeteners
Group 1= Low calorie sweeteners
Some low calorie sweeteners currently approved for use include Acesulfame- K, Aspartame, Neotame, Saccharin and Sucralose.
Group 2= Polyols and bulk sweeteners
These sweeteners come from sugar alcohols (polyols) and are not as sweet as low calorie sugars. They are generally the same sweetness per g as table sugar, but some polyols are less sweet meaning a low calorie sweetener may be added to boost sweetness. Well known polyols include Sorbitol, Manitol and Xylitol.
5.) Don’t contribute to tooth decay
Low calorie sweeteners, Polyols and bulk sweeteners resist bacteria in the mouth, meaning they do not produce acid and therefore don’t contribute to tooth decay, which in turn can lead to gum disease and even heart disease!
6.) Slowly absorbed
Polyols and artifial sweeteners are widely used in ‘diet’ and ‘low calorie’ food and drinks due to their low nutritive value and slow absorption rate. Consequently they have very little effect on blood sugar levels and are thus used in many ‘diabetic’ food and drinks. Incidentally, the British Dietetic Association recommends that you steer clear of food and drinks labelled ‘diabetic friendly’. These are grossly overpriced, and if you space ordinary sugar containing foods out and don’t consume large amounts on an empty stomach i.e. keeping the glycaemic load low, then ‘diabetic foods’ are somewhat unnecessary.
7.) Polyols make you go!
Too many polyols (bulk sweeteners) in your diet can have a laxative effect as these are harder for your body to digest. The bacteria in your stomach try in vain to break them down causing your stomachs to draw in more fluid from the rest of your body. Bacteria give off gas when digesting which increases wind and bloatedness, and over digest everything else. Be sure not to over consume low calorie/diet foodstuffs, mints, chewing gum or pick ‘n’ mix (Edwards, 2000).
8.) Heavily used during the World Wars
Like most foodstuffs, sugar was heavily rationed during world War I and II, meaning Saccharin (the only sweetener about at that time) was frequently used to satisfy our sweet tooth whilst the Germans were on our case (Dubois, 2000).
DuBois, G, E. (2000). Sweeteners: nonnutritive. Francis FJ, ed. Encyclopedia of food science and technology. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Edwards, W, P. (2000). The Science of Sugar Confectionary. Sweeteners. Beccles: RSC Paperbacks.
Kroger, Meister and Kava, (2006). Low-calorie Sweeteners and Other Sugar Substitutes: A Review of the Safety Issues. Comprehensive reviews in food science and food safety. 5: 35-47.