Consumers regard sweeteners with suspicion

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Low calorie sweeteners, Sugar substitute

Many British consumers still regard sweeteners with suspicion, although in practice, very few actively avoid products that contain them, according to research commissioned by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF).

A quarter of British adults polled last month by YouGov on behalf of the BNF said they lacked confidence in the safety of low calorie sweeteners, while almost a third of those expressing concerns believed the ‘risk’ related to the ‘artificial’ nature of some of the sweeteners. But the vast majority still ate and drank products containing them regardless of these lingering anxieties.

Professor Andrew Renwick, emeritus professor at the University of Southampton’s school of medicine, is presenting the research today at a BNF conference on sweeteners.

He said the findings showed that many consumers believed that ‘natural’ ingredients were automatically safer than ‘artificial’ or ‘industrially produced’ ingredients. Likewise, most consumers did not realise that sweeteners and other food additives underwent rigorous safety testing in order to gain regulatory approval.

Their confusion in part reflected conflicting messages in the media, which covered positive and negative academic studies about sweeteners such as aspartame from one day to the next without giving any sense of how such studies contributed to the overall body of scientific evidence.

But the​food industry itself had also contributed to consumer anxiety by presenting products with ‘no artificial sweeteners’ or only ‘natural sweeteners’ as inherently superior or even safer, he acknowledged: “Consumers need more information from the food industry and from regulators about the way safety measures are put in place to protect their health when it comes to low calorie sweeteners​.”

Sweeteners and weight management

Despite their concerns over safety, 38% of adults polled believed that eating foods or drinks containing low calorie sweeteners could help them lose weight as part of a calorie-controlled diet.

While marketers in the food industry were fixated on all things ‘natural’, blacklisting artificial sweeteners was not in consumers' best interests as obesity figures continued to rise, BNF director general Professor Judy Buttriss told Food Manufacture​ last year: "It's not helpful if they are avoided out of hand."

While aspartame has been given a clean bill of health by the European Food Safety Authority, several retailers have banned it as part of clean-labelling initiatives. But this was counterproductive, said Buttriss. “To facilitate energy reduction in soft drinks, stronger support from the FSA for the use of non-caloric sweeteners is needed in terms of acknowledging their safety, in order to achieve lower levels of sugar. In particular, clear communications and reassurance are required with respect to aspartame.”

Sara Stanner, science programme manager at the BNF, added: “The results of this survey should prompt the food industry to communicate clearly to customers about the ingredients in their food, so that they can make informed choices about what they eat and drink.”

The research was conducted by YouGov in late March via an online questionnaire sent to 2,017 British adults.

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