People who are trying to lose weight often replace sugar with artificial sweeteners.
One of the most common of those today is called acesulfame potassium.
Like most sweeteners, it is controversial.
Some people think it is safe, while others claim that it is harmful to your health and even causes weight gain (1).
This is a detailed review of acesulfame potassium and its health effects.
What is acesulfame potassium?
Acesulfame potassium (also known as acesulfame K, or ace K) is an artificial sweetener, sometimes referred to in Europe as E950.
It works by stimulating the sweet-taste receptors on the tongue, so you can enjoy the taste of sweetness without consuming sugar.
Acesulfame K is usually found in a blend with other sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose. These are often blended together to mask the bitter aftertaste caused when sweeteners are used on their own.
Interestingly, it's thought that acesulfame K isn't broken down or stored in the body. Instead, it's absorbed into your system and then passed unchanged in your urine.
Bottom line: Acesulfame potassium is an artificial sweetener that is 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is also called acesulfame K or ace K.
Which foods contain it?
Acesulfame potassium is a highly versatile artificial sweetener that is used in a wide range of foods and drinks.
Unlike similar sweeteners (such as aspartame), it is stable when heated. This property explains why it is found in many baked goods.
Examples of foods containing acesulfame potassium include:
- Beverages (including soda, fruit juices, non-carbonated beverages and alcohol).
- Tabletop sweeteners.
- Dairy products.
- Ice cream.
- Jam, jelly and marmalade.
- Baked goods.
- Toothpaste and mouthwash.
- Chewing gum.
- Yogurt and other milk products.
- Breakfast cereals.
- Salad dressings and sauces.
It can be listed on food labels in a number of ways, so watch for the following:
- Acesulfame K.
- Acesulfame potassium.
- E950 (in Europe).
Bottom line: Acesulfame potassium can be found in a range of processed foods, from diet drinks to frozen desserts and baked goods.
Like other artificial sweeteners, acesulfame potassium is controversial
For example, some claim they can disrupt metabolic processes and interfere with appetite regulation, body weight and blood sugar control.
However, despite these concerns, both the United States and Europe have declared acesulfame K as safe for use in humans.
The FDA recommends that acesulfame K is safe up to an acceptable daily intake of 15 mg/kg/day of body weight in the U.S. In Europe, the acceptable daily intake is slightly lower, at 9 mg/kg/day of body weight.
You would have to consume a huge quantity of sweetener to exceed this amount. In America, it is equivalent to 20 12-oz cans of Coke Zero for a 150-lb (68 kg) person, in a single day (7).
Despite its acceptance in some countries, some academics remain critical of the decision to declare acesulfame K safe.
They say that the studies used to prove its safety do not meet the scientific standards usually required to make such decisions (6).
Bottom line: Like other artificial sweeteners, acesulfame potassium is criticized for potential adverse effects on health. However, regulatory authorities in the U.S. and Europe have declared it safe.
Effects on blood sugar and insulin
Research has found that artificial sweeteners cause only minimal changes in blood sugar levels, and they are considered safe for diabetics (8).
However, several observational studies (which can't prove cause and effect) have highlighted a link between consumption of diet drinks and development of obesity, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome (9, 10, 11, 12).
In test tubes, acesulfame K has been shown to increase the amount of sugar absorbed by cells from the gut (14).
In addition, one animal study showed that injecting high doses of acesulfame K directly into rats caused them to release massive amounts of insulin - a 114-210% increase over baseline (15).
However, it should be noted that in this experiment animals were fed large doses of sweeteners under unusual conditions. As a result, the results can't be applied to humans.
Human studies have not found that acesulfame potassium raises blood sugar or insulin, but studies on long-term use are lacking (16).
Bottom line: In the short term, acesulfame potassium doesn't raise your blood sugar or insulin. However, the long-term effects of consistent use by humans are unknown.
Does acesulfame potassium raise your risk of cancer?
One of the most serious claims about acesulfame potassium is that it could increase your risk of cancer.
Since it has been approved for use in soft drinks, more people than ever are being exposed to acesulfame K.
At the same time, some scientists question the validity of the studies used to determine its safety.
In fact, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) openly queried the quality of the science used to approve this sweetener for widespread use (6).
However, the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) disagree with CSPI's position. They assert that acesulfame K is safe and that current evidence is sufficient to be confident that it won't cause cancer (17).
Acesulfame K has been studied in both test tubes and animals to determine whether it poses a cancer risk.
In test tubes, scientists look for signs that a substance could be "genotoxic" - in other words, that it has potential to damage your DNA and cause mutations that may lead to cancer.
Many studies looking at acesulfame K failed to detect any signs of genotoxicity. Also, studies that did obtain results indicating potential cancer risk weren't replicated in follow-up studies (18).
One of the largest animal studies testing the effects of acesulfame K in the diet was conducted by the National Toxicology Program.
They gave mice up to 3% of their total diet as acesulfame K over 40 weeks. This is equivalent to a person drinking more than 1,000 cans of soft drinks each day. They found no evidence of an increased risk of cancer in the mice (19).
Bottom line: Studies in test tubes and lab animals suggest that acesulfame K doesn't cause cancer. Although some disagree, major regulatory authorities in the U.S. and Europe have reached the same conclusion.
Other side effects
Critics have raised a number of other health concerns around artificial sweeteners, including acesulfame K.
Some also suggest that if you're pregnant or breastfeeding, exposure to acesulfame K could influence your baby's preference for sweet foods (23).
One long-term study in mice showed that acesulfame K is linked to neurological disruptions and a decline in brain function. However, further investigation in humans is needed before we can know if it will affect people in the same way (24).
Bottom line: Acesulfame K may cause premature delivery or affect the taste preferences of babies whose mothers eat a lot of the sweetener. One animal study suggests that long-term use may impair brain function.
Should you avoid acesulfame potassium?
Artificial sweeteners may be useful for some people to include in their diet, especially if they have a sweet tooth and already consume high amounts of sugar.
However, even though they may appear safe, no one knows the risk if you consume them regularly for years.
Critics still maintain that the studies on acesulfame K aren't good enough, and we can't be confident that it won't cause harm in the long term. But at the same time, long-term animal studies have shown us that even very high doses are well-tolerated.
At the end of the day, there doesn't seem to be any compelling reason to avoid acesulfame K - or any other artificial sweetener, for that matter.
The decision to consume them or not should be made on an individual basis.
If you like them and tolerate them, great. If you don't like them or they make you feel bad, avoid them. It's that simple.