Whether one likes it or not artificial sweeteners are here to stay as an ingredient in many consumer food products because there are millions of people who have restrictions regarding intake of natural sugars either for medical reasons or for weight control. The question of selection of a particular non calorie sweetener is difficult because each one available to day has one or the other drawback as none is considered absolutely satisfactory. Consumer is further confounded by claims and counter claims by different brands regarding the virtue of their products. Amongst the sweeteners which have been established as acceptable with adequate safety credentials, Aspartame was predominantly in use till the year 2004 and more recently Sucralose and Stevia glycosides are in the lime light because of their perceived superiority and cost considerations.
Aspartame, discovered by G D Searle and Company in 1965 had a turbulent history before becoming universally accepted as a sugar substitute till recently. It is the methyl ester of aspartic acid/phenyl alanine dipeptide and got its first approval in 1975 and to day it is considered safe in more than 90 countries. It is 200 times sweeter than sucrose and both Sucralose and Stevia score over it in terms of intensity of sweetness. Under continuous attack from critics on safety issues, it was subjected to hundreds of safety studies and most recently it was declared safe again in 2007. Besides the stability of Aspartame under high temperature or under acidic and alkaline media is not considered adequate for application in many foods though there are more than 6000 consumer food products in the market containing this sweetener. After the expiry of its patent protection in 1994, there are more producers of Aspartame, most prominent being the Ajinomoto Company which enjoys a market share of 40% out of a total world production of 15000 tons.
The controversy regarding the safety refuses to die down and no matter how much scientific evidence is generated there will always be skeptics who do not want to believe the claims, probably out of too much concerns for their own health. How ever keeping the controversy alive can be harmful to the product as is evidenced by some sustained legal and other obstructions against Aspartame. This has of course added to general concerns over artificial sweeteners and fed growing interest in natural ingredients, including Stevia, which comes from a plant native to South America. Stevia has been used in food and drink products sold in markets in Asia and South America for decades but industry recognition of the ingredient has grown since the FDA cleared its use in the US in 2008. The food and drinks sector is awaiting full EU clearance, although France has given its approval under a rule that allows a member state to give a temporary, two-year green light to an ingredient.
Stevia has to go a long way to catch up or replace Aspartame though giants like Cargill have joined the Stevia club to corner significant share of global sweetener sales. It is estimated that out of a world business of $ 350 million in artificial sweeteners, Aspartame has a share of 27% while Stevia sales were just $79m, or 6% of the market. If Stevia and Sucralose become more attractive choices, Aspartame market is bound to slide go down progressively, especially because of the on-going controversies vis-à-vis its safety. Given the choice, the safety of the sweeteners being not an issue, users may increasingly prefer Stevia and Sucralose as their sweetener intensity is much higher than Aspartame while the unit cost is almost same. With large mega players like Cargill entering Stevia business the sugar substitute business is bound to heat up in the coming years and if competition can bring down the prices, consumer will be the happiest lot! Natural sugar, be it from Sugarcane or Sugar beets may see its role increasingly being marginalized because of the plethora of health disorders attributed to its consumption.