The Safety of Sugar Substitutes

It's Your Health

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The Issue

Canadians have a taste for sweet foods, but are often worried about the calories they contain. As a result, a variety of sugar substitutes (commonly referred to as artificial sweeteners, even though some are derived from natural sources) have been developed for use as table-top sweeteners, in food preparation at home, and as additives in processed foods. However, conflicting reports in the media and on the Internet about sugar substitutes have led some people to be concerned about their safety.


Sugar substitutes that are added to pre-packaged foods are regulated as food additives and subject to strict controls under Canada's Food and Drug Regulations. Sugar substitutes approved for use as food additives in pre-packaged foods in Canada include:

  • acesulfame-potassium
  • aspartame
  • erythritol
  • neotame
  • sucralose
  • sugar alcohols (polyols) such as sorbitol, isolmalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol and xylitol
  • thaumatin

These products are used in foods such as soft drinks, desserts, breakfast cereals, chewing gum and other confectionery items, such as candy. Aspartame, a low calorie sugar substitute is perhaps the best known of these products. It has been approved for use in Canada since 1981 and is currently permitted in a variety of foods.

Health Benefits and Risks of Sugar Substitutes

Sugar substitutes are useful to diabetics who wish to sweeten their foods. They allow people to cut back on their sugar intake and may aid people in trying to achieve or maintain a healthy weight.

As with any food, moderation is the key. For example, consuming too many foods containing certain sweetening agents, such as sugar alcohols, may cause some stomach discomfort and have a laxative effect.

People with phenylketonuria (PKU), a genetic disorder, have to control their intake of phenylalanine. Since aspartame contains phenylalanine, products that have aspartame as an ingredient must have a label that reflects this.

Some people have reported sensitivities to aspartame. However, researchers have been unable to confirm these reports through clinical studies. There is ongoing research investigating this issue.

Consumption of sugar substitutes during pregnancy does not pose a health risk. However, pregnant women should avoid consuming too many products containing sugar substitutes, since they may be replacing nutrient-dense, energy-yielding foods needed for a healthy pregnancy.

Controlling Your Intake of Sugar Substitutes

If you eat foods containing sugar substitutes, keep the following in mind.

  • Read the labels on foods and beverages to identify those that contain sugar substitutes.
  • If you experience stomach discomfort or diarrhea from consuming sugar substitutes, cut back on your intake.
  • If you are diabetic, consider how sugar substitutes can play a role in a healthy, balanced diet.
  • If you are pregnant, make sure that your consumption of sugar substitutes is not replacing foods needed for a healthy pregnancy.

Government of Canada's Role

The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring that foods available to all Canadians are safe.

Health Canada is responsible for administering the Food and Drugs Act. The Food and Drug Regulations require that pre-packaged foods carry a list of ingredients, including additives such as sugar substitutes. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight.

The Health Products and Food Branch of Health Canada is responsible for regulating food additives, including sugar substitutes. All additives permitted in food sold in Canada are listed in the Food and Drug Regulations. Any request made to Health Canada to permit the use of a new food additive or to extend the use of a food additive to additional foods must be accompanied by a detailed submission. The submission must include the physical and chemical properties of the substance, the amount and reason for its use, and detailed results of tests establishing the safety of the product, as well as other requirements. Health Canada's Bureau of Chemical Safety coordinates the assessment of food additive submissions. For a complete list of all food additives that are permitted, see the sources listed in the Need More Info? section.

Health Canada also works with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) on matters of food safety. The CFIA enforces Canada's food standards and labelling laws and works with associations, distributors, food manufacturers and importers to ensure complete and appropriate labelling of all foods.

Need More Info?

For more information on sugar substitutes, check out these sources.

Health Canada information on artificial sweeteners

Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy - National Guidelines for the Childbearing Years

It's Your Health - Type 2 Diabetes

It's Your Health - Food Additives

Health Canada's Food Additive home page

Health Canada's Food Additive Dictionary provides a list of food additives permitted for use in foods offered for sale in Canada and the reasons they are used.

Bureau of Chemical Safety
Health Products and Food Branch, Health Canada
Banting Building, Postal Locator 2203G2
Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0L2

Information concerning food labelling is available from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's Fair Labelling Practices Program.

For additional articles on health and safety issues go to the It's Your Health Web site at:
You can also call toll free at 1-866-225-0709 or TTY at 1-800-465-7735*

Original: April 2008
©Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Health, 2008

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