Are light products unhealthy?

Clinical dietician and food scientist Marijke Berkenpas of I'm a Foodie regularly answers nutrition questions. We asked her: is it true that light products are unhealthy?

Reply from Marijke

Sweeteners are sweet-tasting substances that provide no or very few calories and are often used to replace sugar. For example, in Optimel 0%, light soft drinks, light desserts or sugar-free sweets. You probably know aspartame by name, but there are many more types of sweeteners, each with different properties. Light soft drinks may contain aspartame acesulfame-K, saccharin, sucralose, cyclamate or combinations of these. Some sweeteners provide no calories because they cannot be digested by the body, others do provide calories (such as aspartame), but because they are used in such small quantities, their energy value is negligible. Polyols (such as xylitol and sorbitol) are mainly used in chewing gum; if a lot of these are eaten, they can cause flatulence and diarrhoea. All sweeteners used in foods have been found to be safe by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). If there is good research showing that a sweetener is risky to health, EFSA does not allow it to be used in foods.

Just because sweeteners are safe does not mean that light products are healthy choices. A little sweetener in coffee or tea every now and then and a light soft drink to replace sugary drinks is a great way to make the switch to sugar-free alternatives (e.g. to help with weight loss). But water, coffee, tea and dairy without sugar or sweetener are still preferable. And sweets and biscuits, with or without sweeteners, are not healthy choices anyway.

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