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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Reducing Calorie Intakes With Non-Nutritive Sweeteners

By Julia Bird

The obesity epidemic is a concern for countries all over the world. The problem is not just restricted to high-income countries paradoxically, both undernutrition and obesity can coexist within populations. There are many underlying causes of obesity that relate to both individual choices, biology, society and the environment. The World Health Organisation states that obesity is a “social and environmental disease” and encourages the development of strategies to make healthy choices easier.

One direct cause of obesity is the consumption of discretionary calories, such as those obtained through sugar. It seems that humans have an in-built preference for sweet foods (see review by Ventura and Mennella). This likely drives the consumption of confectionary, soft drinks, cakes and cookies that can lead to weight gain. Although the moderate consumption of foods containing discretionary calories from sugar can be incorporated into a healthy diet and lifestyle according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, excessive intakes will lead to weight gain.

Products that contain “non-nutritive sweeteners” – a term used to describe substances with a sweet taste that do not provide any other nutrients in the diet – are used by consumers to reduce calorie intakes. These products are also useful for diabetics who avoid table sugar due to its effects on their blood sugar. Non-nutritive sweeteners sweeten foods without extra calories or sugar.

Various non-nutritive sweeteners are available for use in foods. A sweetener that has become popular in the past few years is stevia. This plant extract gets its sweetness from a range of glycosides that it contains, predominantly stevioside and rebaudioside-A. Even though stevia plant production is seen as a crop with a low environmental impact,  it has a low yield of around 3 tons per hectare dried leaves, which produces only around 60 kg per hectare rebaudioside-A assuming a 2% yield. Compared to the yield from sugarcane (60-70 tons of sugarcane are used to make 6000-7000 kg of sugar), this is rather inefficient. Even so, the greater sweetness of stevia means that it is on a par with cane sugar (yield is not the only basis for comparing the environmental impact as other impacts such as water, pesticide and energy inputs have to be considered). Fermentation technology could enable nature-identical rebaudioside-A production using a lower carbon footprint and with less impact on the environment than when extracted from the plant.

Non-nutritive sweeteners are not the only solution to the obesity epidemic. However, they can play a role in helping people to lose weight (Pereira and Odegaard). A wide range of different sweeteners are available that can meet the needs of consumers in terms of “natural” claims, taste and flavor profile, method of production, and final use.

Main reference:

Press release: DSM announces fermentation-based sweetener platform. 22 Jun 2014.

Supporting references:

EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to food (ANS). Scientific Opinion on the safety of steviol glycosides for the proposed uses as a food additive. EFSA Journal 2010;8(4):1537 [84 pp.]. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2010.1537

Fitch C, Keim KS; Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: use of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012 May;112(5):739-58. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.03.009. Epub 2012 Apr 25. As Consumers Demand 'Natural,' Stevia Set to Become Blockbuster Product. June 5 2013.

Pereira MA, Odegaard AO. Artificially sweetened beverages--do they influence cardiometabolic risk? Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2013 Dec;15(12):375. doi: 10.1007/s11883-013-0375-z.

Ventura AK, Mennella JA. Innate and learned preferences for sweet taste during childhood. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2011 Jul;14(4):379-84. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0b013e328346df65.