Sweeteners are substances that are added to foods to give them a sweet taste. Before authorising their marketing, the safety of sweeteners is assessed.

What are sweeteners?

Sweeteners, in the strict sense, are substances that provide a sweet taste. They can be naturally occurring, such as sugar, honey and maple syrup, or man-made, such as aspartame.

In everyday language, sweeteners refer specifically to food additives with the following characteristics:

  • a greater sweetening power than table sugar
  • few or no calories
  • a moderate or no effect on blood glucose (blood sugar level)

 There are 2 types of sweeteners:

  • bulk sweeteners, also called “polyols” or “sugar alcohols”
  • intense sweeteners

DID YOU KNOW? Table sugar (white and brown), also known as sucrose, is a natural ingredient extracted from sugar cane and sugar beet. Fructose is found primarily in fruit, honey, agave nectar but also in vegetables, cereals and potatoes. Its sweetening power is higher than that of glucose.

How are sweeteners regulated?

Like all food additives, sweeteners are controlled substances. The European Commission assesses their usefulness and EFSA oversees their safety.

Sweeteners, like all food additives, are listed on product ingredient labels.

They are listed either under their names or their code:

  • “E” which indicates that an additive is approved by the European Union
  • figures according to the function of the additive ( “9” for sweeteners, “4” for texturing agents).

Please note! The code does not necessarily mean that the food additive is chemical. For example, steviol glycosides (stevia), which go by the code E 960, are additives of plant origin whose extraction process is synthetic.

For intense sweeteners, an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) is determined: this is the amount of a food additive, expressed in milligrams (mg) per kilogram (kg) of body weight, that can be consumed daily over a lifetime without incurring any appreciable health risk.

The European Regulation regulates not only the use of food additives but also the maximum quantities that specified foods may contain. These maximum values are established to ensure that consumption does not exceed the ADI.

  Name Additive code Sweetening power Kilo calories/gramme Acceptable daily intake (mg/kg of body weight/day)
Bulk sweeteners Isomalt E 953 0.4<0.5 2<4  
Sorbitol E 420 0.5<0.6 2.6<3.7  
Mannitol E 421 0.5<0.7 1.6<4  
Xylitol E 967 1<2 2.4<4  
Erythritol E 968 0.7 0.2  
Maltitol E 965 0.9 2.1  
Lactitol E 966 0.4 2  
Intense sweeteners Acesulfame-K E 950 100-200 0 9
Aspartame E 951 200 0 40
Cyclamate E 952 20 to 40 0 7
Saccharin E 954 300 to 500 0 5
Sucralose E 955 500-600 0 15
Steviol glycosides E 960 200-400   4

What are bulk sweeteners?

Bulk sweeteners not only providing a sweet taste but also contribute to the texture of the product.

Their sweetening power is slightly higher than that of sucrose but the calories are about the same: about 4 calories per gramme.

They have the advantage of not causing caries and, for this reason, are found in sweets and chewing gum.

They have the disadvantage of not being completely absorbed in the digestive tract. They can then ferment in the colon and cause bloating and diarrhea.

It is recommended not to exceed the limits of 20 to 50 g per day to avoid the signs of gastrointestinal discomfort. They are strongly discouraged for young children (under 3 years).

What are intense sweeteners?

Intense sweeteners, sometimes called “artificial sweeteners” have no calories and have no effect on the glycemic index. 
An Acceptable Daily Intake is assigned to them below which consumption should not carry any risk for health.

Several intense sweeteners are often combined in order to perfect the flavour. Bulking agents are also added to compensate for the loss of texture and mass.

Please note! A product with reduced sugar does not mean it does not contain fat. Products that contain intense sweeteners may contain more fat to improve the texture of the product.

What is stevia ?

Steviol glycosides (E 960), commonly known as “stevia”, are actually a mixture of various steviol glycosides extracted from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana Bertoniplant.

This is a sweetener of plant origin that has undergone a synthetic extraction process. That is why steviol glycosides are not considered as natural sweeteners but as artificial sweeteners of natural origin.

Stevia is a growing market in Belgium: more and more products indicate that they contain stevia. However, it is important to draw attention to the fact that the majority of products that contain stevia contain conventional sugar to mask the aniseed taste of stevia (Heinz Ketchup 50%, Coca-Cola Life).

To learn more about stevia:

What are the risks of sweeteners for health?

According to Sciensano, sweetener consumption among Belgians is well below the Acceptable Daily Intakes and therefore should not pose risks of overconsumption.

However, consumption of sweeteners depends on several factors:

  • dietary habits that are changing very quickly
  • the ever-expanding range of products containing sweeteners

Furthermore, food products often contain several sweeteners and the health effects of such mixtures are still unknown.

DID YOU KNOW? According to an assessment published in 2011 by EFSA, sweeteners do not help to maintain or achieve a normal body weight.

What should be our attitude towards sweeteners?

Given the increase in diabetes and obesity, one of the health goals is to cut down on sugar consumption.

However, sugar can be consumed as part of a balanced diet. It should be consumed in small doses, and not in large quantities. Sweeteners can be an alternative to sugar, but they should not replace it entirely.

In a context where eating habits are changing very quickly and where the range of products containing sweeteners is on the rise, it is important to:

  • vary the products consumed
  • be informed of their composition by reading the label
  • control sugar intake (more carbohydrate, less sugar)

Consult the Nubel food planner, and the nutritional recommendations for sugar of the High Council for Health. 

Sciensano studies the total intake of sweeteners in the diet of the Belgian population.

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