The desire for sweet taste is inborn. The use of honey dates back to 2000 BC but it is sugar which has been the sweetener of choice for centuries.

Sugar is a most important flavouring substance. It gives the sensation of sweetness and provides a source of energy. However, excessive sugar intake is linked with a number of health problems including tooth decay, obesity and diabetes.

photo of sweetener and sugar

Intense sweeteners are many times sweeter than sugar. A small amount of intense sweetener replaces a large amount of sugar

Alternatives to sugar have therefore been developed which provide the sweetness without the energy content. Saccharin was discovered in 1878 but it was not until the 1950's, when consumers became interested in low calorie foods, that sweeteners came into significant use.

Alternative sweeteners can be divided into two main categories:

artificial or intense sweeteners
Many times sweeter than sugar and are therefore typically used at very low levels to replace the sweetness normally provided by sugar
bulk sweeteners
Provide both bulk and sweetness. Depending on the individual sweetener, they are 35% to 100% as sweet as sugar and so have similar bulk to sugar

Sweeteners in food

Obviously sweeteners provide the sweet taste! However, sugar also has other functions in food:

Intense sweeteners cannot provide all of these properties. For example, they cannot replace sugar in cakes because the sugar also adds bulk and stiffness. Possibly the main use of intense sweeteners is in the production of low calorie, or low energy foods. These are especially suitable to people suffering from diabetes. Bulk sweeteners, such as xylitol and malitol, are less sweet but can be used to regulate the texture of the food.

Slimming and sweeteners

The energy in foods is measured in calories . On food labels 1 Calorie (with a capital 'C') is equivalent to 1,000 calories or 4.2 kiloJoules (kJ). Foods and drinks that have fewer calories (kcal or kJ) than their traditional counterparts can help prevent obesity or aid people who are trying to lose weight. One way to do this is to replace sugar with a sweet tasting, non-calorific or reduced-calorie sweetener.

Another reason for using sweeteners is in foods and drinks for diabetics. They cannot regulate their blood sugar levels properly and eating a sugary meal could be dangerous. Artificial sweeteners allow diabetics to have sugar-free but sweet-tasting foods.

Foods that typically contain alternative sweeteners include:

  • drinks (carbonated, non- carbonated, milk-based and alcoholic)
  • breakfast cereals
  • confectionery (including chewing gum)
  • desserts, fillings and toppings (ice-cream, sweet whipped cream)
  • processed fruit and vegetable products (jams, jellies, baked beans, canned fruit)
  • medicines syrups salad dressings and condiments
  • baked goods


photo of diet cola

Low calorie drinks use sweeteners to replace sugar

Find out about the chemistry of sweeteners