Consumers confused about sweetener safety, says study

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sweeteners Sucralose Sugar substitute Obesity

Despite growing awareness of the health threat of obesity,
Americans are still confused about the safety of the most commonly
available sugar substitutes, claims an NGO.

In a recent Shape Up America!, survey, many consumers harbored unfounded concerns about safety and false perceptions about which high intensity sweeteners carry warning labels.

In addition, the survey recorded a strongly held belief that there is a natural sugar substitute, when in fact all are derived through chemical processes.

Americans, says the organization, continue to face an obesity epidemic on the one hand and mountains of confusing information and 'advice' about weight control on the other. It says that as consumers struggle to choose alternatives to sugar and high fructose corn sweeteners, the food industry should be working to allay their concerns about the safety of sugar substitutes.

This would clearly be in their interests. Sweeteners are enjoying considerable growth as food and beverage makers seek to slice the calories from their formulations.

According to the survey, 30 percent of Americans believe that Sweet'N Low still contains a warning label. Congress mandated such a label on all saccharin products after one study found that extremely high levels of the sweetener were associated with increased incidence of bladder cancer in male rats in 1977.

However, after careful review of the evidence, the warning on saccharin, the main ingredient in Sweet'N Low, was removed five years ago and the product now has a 50-year history of safe usage.

The survey also found that 77 percent of Americans are unaware of a warning that appears on packets of Equal. Aspartame, the main ingredient in Equal, should be avoided by people - especially pregnant women - who suffer from phenylketonuria or PKU, a rare inherited metabolic disease that arises from the inability to metabolize phenylalanine, one of the two main amino acids in aspartame. However, this issue does not apply to those who are only carriers of the disease.

Each of the three most common high intensity sweeteners is derived through a chemical process, yet 27 percent of Americans believe that Splenda is a natural product. Once they understood that Splenda is made by chemically - altering a sugar molecule by adding chlorine to it, 43 percent of consumers said their perception of Splenda changed.

Despite the fact that the product is safe, consumers' perception was negatively influenced. There is a perception that only "natural" is safe. But the NGO says that data clearly supports the safety of high intensity sweeteners.

"Many Americans are avoiding high intensity sweeteners because there is a flood of misperceptions on the part of the public,"​ said Dr. Barbara Moore, president of Shape Up America!

"Since these products have a well documented history of safe usage, it is our hope to debunk these myths and allay their concerns about the safety of sugar substitutes."

The survey was conducted by a major marketing research consultancy amongst a national population of 1,000 adults over the age of 18 via telephone during the week of 14 November 2005.

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