FDA approves a new artificial sweetener

Move over Equal, Splenda and Sweet 'N Low: There's a new low-calorie artificial sweetener coming to the U.S. market, called advantame, and it packs the most potent sweetness of them all.
(Kirk McCoy / Los Angeles Times )

Say hello to advantame, aspartame’s intensely sweet cousin, which got the nod to enter the U.S. food market on Wednesday from the Food and Drug Administration. Advantame -- which does not yet having a catchy marketing name -- is the sixth artificial sweetener on the U.S. market to receive the FDA’s blessing as a safe food additive.

Advantame joins five other artificial sweeteners: saccharine, aspartame, sucralose, neotame and acesulfame potassium--better known by their respective commercial names, Sweet’N Low, Equal, Splenda and Newtame and Sweet One. (The sweetener Stevia, made from the leaves of the South American Stevia rebaudiana plant, has not required explicit FDA approval, as it fell under the FDA’s “generally regarded as safe” clause.)

Advantame is 20,000 times sweeter, gram per gram, than table sugar, making it the sweetest, by far, of the bunch. (By comparison, aspartame, sucralose and saccharine range from 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar.) It is a white crystalline sweetener that flows freely and dissolves in water.


Advantame does not break down under heat, and thus is expected to be used to sweeten baked goods, dessert confections, jams and jellies, and syrups and toppings, as well as soft drinks. (The FDA said it is not for use in meat and poultry.)

Unlike sugar, honey or molasses, advantame and the other “high-intensity” sweeteners it joins on the U.S. market add no substantial calories to the foods or drinks they flavor. They also do not generally raise blood sugar levels in humans.

The safety of these artificial sweeteners has been widely challenged, and some nutritionists maintain the intense sweetness they bring to foods and drinks may confound normal metabolic processes and prime consumers’ tastes for highly-sweetened (and often highly caloric) products. But the FDA on Wednesday declared advantame safe, and reiterated its position that other artificial sweeteners on the market with its permission are safe when consumed in concentrations that are customarily used.

Like aspartame, advantame contains phenylalanine, which is metabolized with difficulty by people with a rare genetic disorder, phenylketonuria. But because of its intense sweetness, advantame would be used at much lower volumes than is asparatame. As a result, the FDA has declared that it can be safely consumed by those with phenylketonuria.

In finding advantame safe for the general population, the U.S. Public Health Service’s Capt. Andrew Zajac, director of the FDA’s Division of Petition Review, said the agency took into account the findings of 37 studies conducted on animals and humans. Those studies explored whether, when consumed in expected volumes, advantame was harmful to the immune, nervous or reproductive systems, or to the development of fetuses or children.

The FDA set the safe daily consumption level of advantame at 32.8 milligrams per kilogram of body weight--the equivalent of 40,000 packets of advantame. The agency has declared 165 packets per day (per kilo of body weight) as the acceptable daily intake of aspartame and sucralose (Equal and Splenda), and 250 packets per day (per kilo of body weight) of saccharine (Sweet’N Low).

“It was virtually impossible to find a toxic dose in animals, and there were no signs of carcinogenicity, reproductive or developmental toxicity, or any other systemic toxicity in animals or humans,” Josh Bloom of the American Council on Science and Health wrote on his blog Wednesday. “About the only way this stuff could harm you is if you were run over by a truck that was delivering it.”

Purveyors of dietary supplements who routinely warn of artificial sweeteners’ dangers, he added, will undoubtedly find something “wrong” with advantame and offer a natural alternative. “After all” he wrote, “we all need to make a living.”