According to the International Food Information Council, more than 4,000 foods and beverages sold in about 90 countries around the world contain the chemical acesulfame potassium. This sweetener is roughly 200 times sweeter than regular table sugar based on volume but contributes no calories to your diet.
Even though health authorities, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Union’s consumer protection agency, continue to permit the use of ace-K in foods and drinks, not every organization is convinced that this chemical is safe.
Over the past several decades researchers have come to mixed conclusions, some declaring that acesulfame potassium poses no risks, and others suggesting that, like other artificial sweeteners, it may be linked to changes in gut health, poor metabolic outcomes, weight gain, and even neurodegeneration and cancer.
What Is Acesulfame Potassium?
Acesulfame potassium (also known as acesulfame K or ace-K) is a zero-calorie sugar substitute that has been used in foods sold in the United States since 1988.
What is acesulfame potassium made from? It’s made by combining acetoacetic acid and potassium, which helps form a highly stable, crystalline sweetener.
While it does contain very small amounts of potassium, as essential nutrient that has many benefits, it’s not enough to have any health-promoting potassium benefits.
Is acesulfame potassium natural or synthetic? It’s considered an artificial/synthetic sweetener, since it’s man-made in a lab using chemical synthesis.
It is structurally related to saccharin (brand name Sweet and Low®), and the two share many physical and chemical properties. Acesulfame potassium brand names include Sunett® and Sweet One®.
Here are some of the reasons that people use acesulfame potassium and possible advantages that it may have:
- It contains zero calories. It’s used to make low-calorie or reduced sugar foods that still taste sweet but provide much fewer calories than products made with cane sugar.
- It can help diabetics limit their sugar and calorie intake. Acesulfame potassium doesn’t cause a release of insulin or raise blood glucose levels, so some choose to include it in diabetic diet plans.
- When used in baked goods, it helps keep the texture stable and retains sweetness even when cooked at high temperatures. It also helps mask unpleasant, bitter tastes of sweeteners used in diet foods. Although acesulfame- k can be used on its own, food manufacturers typically combine it with other artificial sweeteners in order to produce more of a traditional sugar-like taste.
- It’s low-carb and keto diet-compliant. Because it doesn’t impact blood sugar levels, it’s one keto sweetener that’s added to some “sweet” snacks, condiments, protein powders, etc.
- Like sugar, there’s evidence it doesn’t contribute to tooth decay because bacteria in the mouth do not metabolize it.
Is It Safe? Risks and Side Effects
What are the dangers of acesulfame potassium? In the United States, the FDA has stated that based on available evidence, which includes findings from more than 90 studies, ace-K is safe for the general population to consume.
In terms of how the body reacts to consuming this chemical, there’s evidence that it’s rapidly absorbed but then quickly excreted from the body via urine without being changed. This is one reason why many health authorities in various countries have approved its use in the food supply.
For example, it’s commonly added to foods and beverages in countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and Canada. It’s been approved for use by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the World Health Organization, the Scientific Committee for Food of the European Union and the American Diabetes Association.
That said, some experts feel that overall toxicity data focused on acesulfame-K consumption is somewhat “inadequate” and that consumption can actually cause negative health effects, based on recent animal studies.
As an article published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Pharmacotherapeutics explains, “Scientists are divided in their views on the issue of artificial sweetener safety.”
While some research suggests that use of artificial sweeteners may be beneficial for weight loss and to those who suffer from glucose intolerance/type 2 diabetes, on the other hand there’s concern that consumption may lead to harmful changes in human metabolism, particularly by disrupting glucose regulation.
Additionally, use has been associated with higher body weight.
A 2017 report published in Plos ONE states:
previous studies have found that Ace-K is genotoxic and can inhibit glucose fermentation by intestinal bacteria… Ace-K belongs to sulfonamides, a chemical class associated with antimicrobial activity. A recent study found that overall bacterial diversity was different across non-consumers and consumers of artificial sweeteners, including Ace-K and aspartame, in healthy human adults.
Although it’s currently considered safe, experiencing acesulfame potassium side effects is still possible. These may include:
- Changes in gut microbiota that can lead to insulin resistance, higher risk for type 2 diabetes and other inflammatory conditions — the effects of artificial sweeteners seem to depend on a number of factors, including someone’s current health, gender and diet
- Higher risk for weight gain and obesity
- Possibly increased risk for cognitive dysfunction, due to altering hippocampal function and neuro-metabolic activity, according to limited animal studies
- Cravings for sweets
Some worry that the use of acesulfame-K may contribute to cancer, but at this time there isn’t any solid evidence from long-term studies that can prove this is the case. Because many of the studies conducted on this topic have had limitations, it remains controversial.
There have also been no substantiated reports of allergic reactions to ace-K, according to groups like the FDA.
How much ace-K is safe to consume?
According to the FDA, the acceptable daily intake (or ADI, which is the amount that can be safely consumed each day over their entire lifetime) has been set at 15 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) of body weight. This means that someone who weighs about 130 pounds can safely consume 900 mg of acesulfame potassium per day.
This is a high amount, equalling about the amount used in two gallons of artificially sweetened beverages.
Is acesulfame potassium safe during pregnancy?
Experts usually recommend that pregnant women discuss the use of artificial sweeteners with their health care providers in order to know for sure they are safe. However, generally speaking, there are no warnings against the use of acesulfame potassium specifically during pregnancy.
What happens if you mistakenly give acesulfame potassium to dogs/pets?
Many artificial sweeteners are capable of causing serious, even deadly side effects among dogs, especially xylitol ,which can lead to liver failure. While it’s best to keep products made with any of these chemicals, such as gum and candies, away from dogs, acesulfame potassium doesn’t seem to be as dangerous as xylitol.
It’s still best to carefully monitor what your dog ingests and report any side effects to your vet right away if you suspect your pet may have eaten something dangerous.
Foods that Contain It
What foods is acesulfame potassium found in? It’s commonly combined with other low-calorie and artificial sweeteners in diet products or those labeled “sugar free.”
It can also be found in products that are not low-calorie or diet foods, since its chemical properties help make sweet-tasting foods more shelf-stable, even when they are baked or combined with acidic ingredients.
Food manufacturers also like that the use of ace-K can help cut the sugar content of foods by around 40 percent, thereby reducing the calorie content too.
Here are some examples of acesulfame K foods and drinks:
- candies, especially those that are sugar-free
- chewing gum
- baked goods
- frozen desserts, like ice cream and sorbets
- diet beverages, including reduced calorie juices
- dessert mixes like pudding, jello, etc.
- packaged artificial sweeteners
- dairy product mixes
- alcoholic beverages
- sugar-free jellies and jams
- sweet sauces, marinades and dressings
How to Avoid It (Healthy Alternatives)
Acesulfame-K is not the same thing as sucralose (Splenda) or aspartame (Equal® or Nutrasweet®), however these sugar subs are likely no better in terms of their health impact. All of these chemicals are artificial sweeteners, made using modern chemical processes.
In recent years some studies have found that these products may contribute to adverse effects, such as:
- worsening diabetes
- increasing the risk for metabolic problems and weight gain
- worsening mood disorders
- and more
Rather than consuming artificial sweeteners, healthier alternatives that are not linked with the same concerns include:
- Stevia extract — Stevia is made from the plant species Stevia rebaudiana, which is native to South America. It’s found in granular, powder and extract forms and now used in many low-calorie drinks, yogurts and other “natural” foods. Overall it’s well-tolerated and unlikely to cause side effects — plus it may even have benefits pertaining to glucose tolerance and heart health.
- Monk fruit — A sweetener made from a gourd that’s native to China, this seems to be one of the safest sugar subs available. While it’s a bit pricier than other sweeteners, it’s linked to fewer side effects and may even offer some benefits due to its antioxidant content.
- Erythritol — This sweet-tasting chemical is a sugar alcohol made from corn products, which means it’s often derived from GMO crops. However, it does seem to have some health benefits, such as helping manage blood sugar and weight, supporting dental health, and providing antioxidant effects.
- Xylitol — This sugar alcohol is used in many sugar-free products, like gum, toothpaste, mouthwash, mints, desserts and yogurts. While there’s some evidence that it can benefit dental health by cutting down on sugar consumption, it can also cause GI issues in some people, such as diarrhea. It’s also extremely dangerous for dogs to consume. Unlike stevia, monk fruit and artificial sweeteners, xylitol does contain some calories (it’s not zero-calorie like erythritol) but less than sugar.
- What is acesulfame potassium? Also called acesulfame-K, it’s one of the major low-calorie artificial sweeteners in the modern diet. You’ll find it in candies, gum, low calorie drinks, desserts, dairy products, jellies, syrups and sweet sauces.
- The FDA considers ace-K to be safe for human consumption. It’s been used in the 1980s and is added to food products sold in more than 90 countries.
- While there isn’t much evidence that acesulfame potassium leads to cancer or allergies, some side effects are still possible.
- Recent research suggests that potential acesulfame potassium dangers include altering gut microbiota, increasing risk for glucose intolerance, and possibly contributing to metabolic syndrome, weight gain and obesity.
- On the other hand, some people find value in using acesulfame potassium in place of sugar to control calorie intake and stick to low carb diets or the keto diet.