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Food safety body notifies use of sugar substitutes

Viveat Susan Pinto  |  Mumbai 

Paves way for their use in carbonated drinks

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has notified the use of additives Acesulfame potassium (also called Acesulfame K) and sucralose or Splenda as a di-blend in carbonated water. This paves the way for their use as substitutes to sugar in carbonated drinks such as Pepsi, Thums Up and Coca-Cola.

The move is significant since the beverage industry, a key consumer of sugar, has been lobbying hard for the use of alternative sweeteners for long.

A di-blend means the two additives will be used in combination with each other, helping manufacturers achieve a sweetness level closer to sugar. Individually, say food science experts, additives are considered sweeter than sugar. In combination, manufacturers can achieve the "profile of sugar" far more than when additives are used standalone, they say.

Individually, four additives are permitted in India at the moment. This includes Acesulfame K, aspartame, Splenda and saccarine.

The recently launched Pepsi Max, for instance, contains sucralose or Splenda only. It is positioned as a sugar-less cola brand.

As a di-blend, however, the current combination of Acesulfame K and Splenda will be the second only after additives aspartame and Acesulfame K, allowed by the government way back in the 1990s. Today, aspartame and Acesulfame K as a combination can be found in diet drinks such as Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi.

Internationally, the trend today is to use three additives together. This is popularly called a tri-blend, which is not permitted in India yet.

As far as the current FSSAI notification goes, which was issued last week, not everybody seems excited about it.

According to Vibha Varshney, health researcher at the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), most of these synthesied chemicals are carcinogenic or cancer-causing. "There are few studies," she says, "to establish the safety of Acesulfame K and Splenda, though Aspartame has been extensively studied."

Incidentally, stevia, another additive that is awaiting approval from CODEX Alimentarius, an international body created by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), is not synthetic like the above, Varshney points out. “It is herbal in nature, extracted from a plant called stevia rebaudiana,” she says.

Stevia, according to food science experts, is likely to be approved next year by CODEX for use across product forms.

Currently, countries such as Japan use stevia as a sweetener extensively in food and beverage products. In India, stevia is not permitted at the moment, though it may not be for long, say experts. The beverage industry has been lobbying hard for it, though the sugar industry is said to be against it. The plant stevia rebaudian, in fact, can be found in modern retail stores such as Big Bazaar.

With its extracts having up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar, stevia has gained popularity across the world with the rise in demand for low-fat, low-sugar food alternatives. Medical research has shown benefits of stevia in treating obesity and high blood pressure. It is also considered an effective sugar alternative for those on low-carbohydrate diets such as diabetics.

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First Published: Mon, August 16 2010. 00:39 IST