It is the basis of most zero-sugar drinks and probably the most widely used artificial sweetener after aspartame. Yet, acesulfame potassium is not a household name to most people.
Since we have probably already consumed acesulfame potassium unknowingly, we should inform ourselves about potential effects and side effects.
Therefore, I reviewed the current scientific understanding of acesulfame K in this post and deduced to what extent the sweetener could be harmful.
What is Acesulfame Potassium?
Acesulfame Potassium, or Ace-K, is a zero-calorie sweetener in foods and drinks.
You might find the sweetener, up to 200 times sweeter than sugar, as additive E950 on European food labels.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Ace-K in 1988 since it has been an ingredient in numerous sugar-free beverages.
Acesulfame K is an essential ingredient in zero- or zero-sugar beverages in particular.
Additionally, the FDA approved it in 2003 as a general sweetener and flavor enhancer in all foods except meat (FDA 20181).
It is produced by combining acetoacetic acid and potassium, creating a stable crystalline sweetener.
Although it contains minimal essential electrolyte potassium, it cannot confer any health benefits.
Because it is produced in a laboratory by chemical synthesis, acesulfame K is an artificial sweetener.
The body cannot break down or store acesulfame K like other foods. Instead, the body absorbs acesulfame potassium and then releases it unchanged through the urine.
Moreover, the white crystal powder rarely appears alone.
For example, it occurs in combination with the sweetener sucralose in Splenda or aspartame in Equal or Coke Zero. Acesulfame K itself is also sold under the brand names Sunett and Sweet One.
The fact that the crystal powder has a bitter aftertaste is the main reason for mixing it. Besides, the mixture of sweeteners is an attempt to create an authentic sugar taste.
Since it is more heat stable than aspartame, it remains sweet even at high temperatures. For this reason, it is commonly used as a sugar substitute in baked goods.
That’s why you’ll find acesulfame potassium in the following products, among other things:
- Sweetener packets
- Protein shakes
- Ice cream
- Frozen desserts
- Baked goods
- Chewing gum
Although it is classified as safe by the FDA, many people think that acesulfame K could have dangerous side effects.
Is Acesulfame Potassium Bad for You?
Synthetic sweeteners such as acesulfame K are controversial, as researchers repeatedly describe them as potentially harmful.
While some studies claim that artificial sweeteners are harmless, others show acesulfame potassium cause side effects even at the lowest doses (Tandel 20112).
Finally, we have to ask ourselves about the purpose of artificial sweeteners.
People consume sweeteners primarily because they hope to prevent weight gain.
However, the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio found that consuming zero-sugar and diet soda increases the likelihood of weight gain by 47 percent.
Dr. Sharon Fowler, who led the study, concluded that artificial sweeteners are a cause rather than a countermeasure of the current obesity epidemic (Fowler et al. 20083).
This would also explain why obesity has steadily worsened since many synthetic sweeteners were approved.
But artificial sweeteners don’t just increase the risk of obesity. The Women’s Health Initiative followed 59,614 women over 8.7 years.
Participants who drank two or more zero-sugar beverages daily had a 30 percent higher risk of cardiovascular events (ACC 20144).
Additionally, the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study (ARIC) showed that metabolic syndrome was 34 percent more common among sweetener consumers (Lutsey et al. 20085).
On top of that, a recent study suggests that acesulfame K can upset healthy gut flora and cause obesity and inflammation (Bian et al. 20176).
In addition to the FDA, European authorities have nevertheless not classified acesulfame K as harmful to humans, just like other artificial sweeteners.
How Much Acesulfame Potassium Is Safe?
The U.S. FDA recommends consuming up to a daily dose of 15 mg per kilogram (mg/kg) of body weight of ace-k.
While this may not sound like much initially, it is a dangerously high amount for such an intense sweetener calculated on total weight.
After these calorie-free sweeteners stimulate cravings in the brain, such doses are questionable (Yang 20107).
For this reason, one study concluded that consuming zero beverages instead of regular soft drinks does not lead to the desired calorie reduction due to increased appetite (Bellisle et al. 20078).
The long-term side effects of acesulfame potassium on gut health have not been adequately researched. And as we have heard, the short-term impact on the microbiome is already of great concern.
Is Acesulfame Potassium Keto?
Aside from causing potential cravings, zero drinks with acesulfame K seem, at first glance, to be a legitimate alternative to regular soda.
The ingredients are zero carbohydrates, zero protein, and zero calories.
Without macronutrients, the sugar-free sweetener should not cause a rise in blood sugar.
But is the calculation that simple?
People tend to forget that losing weight is not a matter of blood sugar alone but rather its effect on the storage hormone insulin.
In addition to weight gain and loss, insulin also regulates the metabolic state of ketosis. When insulin levels are high, stored fat cannot be broken down and burned for energy (Meijssen et al. 20019).
Therefore, we need to examine its effects on insulin levels to determine if acesulfame is keto-friendly or can help with weight loss.
Does Acesulfame Potassium Spike Insulin?
Nowadays, researchers can predict about 75% of obese people’s weight gain and loss through insulin levels (Kong et al. 201310).
Ultimately, the storage hormone has the task of storing supplied energy that is not needed ad hoc. Therefore, the higher the insulin level, the more efficient the fat accumulation.
Although the effects on glucose levels are negligible, according to this study, acesulfame K increases insulin levels to the same extent as conventional sugar (Liang et al. 198711).
Therefore, acesulfame potassium is not suitable for the keto diet.
In addition to possible cravings, there is another good reason why artificial sweeteners and zero beverages cannot support weight loss.
Do synthetic sweeteners generally hinder weight loss, or do comparable agents not affect insulin to the same extent?
Sucralose vs. Acesulfame Potassium
Besides aspartame and acesulfame K, there is a third prominent artificial sweetener. Sucralose also contains no carbohydrates, proteins, or calories.
Therefore, you can find it with acesulfame K in Splenda, a zero-calorie sweetener sold in yellow sugar packets.
You’ll also find sucralose among the ingredients on food packaging by the additive number E955.
A study published in the journal Diabetes Care compared drinking water with and without sucralose. As a result of drinking it, the sweetened water increased the test subjects’ insulin levels by up to 50 percent (Pepino et al. 201312).
Thus, this synthetic sweetener also has a significant effect on insulin production.
Furthermore, according to studies, a single packet of Splenda is sufficient to wipe out 50 percent of a healthy gut microbiome (Abou-Donia et al. 200813).
Due to these adverse effects on gut health, sucralose is arguably as harmful as acesulfame K.
Acesulfame Potassium vs. Aspartame
Aspartame is the classic partner of acesulfame K in zero and sports drinks. Moreover, they occur together in packet form in the sweetener Equal.
Therefore, aspartame cannot raise blood sugar levels as abruptly as sugar. But that doesn’t have to mean that the artificial sweetener can’t raise insulin levels.
In terms of possibly helping people lose weight, one study concluded that aspartame could raise insulin levels more than table sugar.
Half an hour after consumption, the meal sweetened aspartame caused an absolute peak level that table sugar could not reach (Anton et al. 201014).
Among other potential side effects, this synthetic sweetener, therefore, impairs fat burning.
Interestingly, a recent study found that the increase in insulin and blood glucose levels over three hours was, on average, the same with aspartame as with sugar consumption (Tey et al. 201715).
Thus, the traditional sweetener in light beverages does not even benefit the hoped-for blood glucose regulation.
Accordingly, being sugar-free does not always mean weight loss, nor does it mean improved health. Therefore, the dominant artificial sweeteners in the beverage market fail in their primary purpose.
Do they also have additional side effects?
Potential Acesulfame Potassium Side Effects
As we’ve already discovered, sugar-free, low-carb soda can be more harmful to you than conventional soda.
The following studies that examined the sweetener’s effect on specific health conditions are shown the side effects that acesulfame potassium can pose, in addition to cravings and weight gain.
May Promote Cancer
Like most artificial sweeteners, acesulfame potassium has been accused of increasing cancer risk.
Nevertheless, I have not found any study that proves acesulfame potassium can cause cancer.
However, as early as the 1980s, doubts were raised about the FDA’s tests to approve acesulfame potassium and aspartame.
In this case, it was employees of the agency who publicly doubted the studies’ validity.
Later, the California Environmental Protection Agency cast doubts on the test’s ability to confirm lack of potential carcinogenicity (Karstadt 200616).
Against this background, the Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center of the European Ramazzini Foundation conducted a long-term study on aspartame in 2005.
The researchers concluded that aspartame was a multipotential carcinogen (Soffritti et al. 200617).
Although there is no comparable study on acesulfame K, this does not mean that the sweetener could not be equally carcinogenic.
Increases Diabetes Risk
Although the artificial sweetener is calorie- and sugar-free, we now know it affects insulin secretion.
In addition to the risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome, consuming acesulfame K also increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to study data (Pepino et al. 201518).
Furthermore, according to another study, acesulfame potassium increases the glucose absorbed by intestinal cells by 20 to 30% (Zheng et al. 201319).
Thus, artificial sweetener is probably not the first choice for people with diabetes.
Not Ideal During Pregnancy
Although the range of studies conducted on acesulfame K during pregnancy is minimal, some findings can be derived.
For example, the intense sweetener passes through the placenta. If the fetus has been exposed to the acesulfame potassium, animals in adulthood show a particular preference for sweets and ace-k.
In this regard, researchers recommend limiting acesulfame potassium consumption to a minimum during pregnancy (Pope et al. 201420).
Furthermore, researchers link artificial sweeteners to an increased likelihood of preterm birth (Petherick et al. 201421).
May Impair Cognitive Abilities
Many people report experiencing headaches as a side effect of acesulfame potassium.
However, unlike other sweeteners, no studies concerning acesulfame K substantiate this accusation.
Nevertheless, the sweetener can have effects on the brain.
Accordingly, scientists have found that acesulfame potassium consumption can result in metabolic disturbances and neurosynaptic abnormalities in hippocampal neurons.
Therefore, they conclude that artificial sweeteners may impair neuro-metabolic functions and cognitive abilities (Cong et al. 201322).
Side Effects of Acesulfame Potassium May Be Harmful
Artificial sweeteners cannot deliver on their promises. Like its sweet partners in zero beverages, acesulfame K cannot help with weight loss.
The current scientific opinion suggests that acesulfame potassium instead promotes weight gain. Since artificial sweeteners fuel cravings, this is not surprising (Yang 201023).
Finally, health authority staff even criticize tests used to approve acesulfame potassium on the market, especially concerning cancer (Karstadt 200626).
For these reasons, I will continue to give zero beverages a wide berth.
Acesulfame Potassium Side Effects FAQ
What contains acesulfame potassium?
You can find acesulfame K in zero beverages, other soft drinks 🥤 , and sweeteners 🍬 such as Sunett, Sweet One, Splenda, or Equal.
Can acesulfame potassium cause side effects?
Acesulfame K promotes diabetes, metabolic syndrome, premature births, and may impair cognitive abilities.
Does acesulfame potassium cause cancer?
Although no study yet exists that identifies acesulfame K as a potential carcinogen, scientists and regulators doubt the cancer tests used to approve it.
1FDA. Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in Food in the United States. Silver Spring: Food and Drug Administration, 2018. Retrieved 2021 Feb 22, from https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/additional-information-about-high-intensity-sweeteners-permitted-use-food-united-states.
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16Karstadt ML. Testing needed for acesulfame potassium, an artificial sweetener. Environ Health Perspect. 2006 Sep;114(9):A516; author reply A516-7. doi: 10.1289/ehp.114-a516a. PMID: 16966071; PMCID: PMC1570055.
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18Pepino MY. Metabolic effects of non-nutritive sweeteners. Physiol Behav. 2015 Dec 1;152(Pt B):450-5. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.06.024. Epub 2015 Jun 19. PMID: 26095119; PMCID: PMC4661066.
19Zheng Y, Sarr MG. Effect of the artificial sweetener, acesulfame potassium, a sweet taste receptor agonist, on glucose uptake in small intestinal cell lines. J Gastrointest Surg. 2013 Jan;17(1):153-8; discussion p. 158. doi: 10.1007/s11605-012-1998-z. Epub 2012 Sep 5. PMID: 22948835; PMCID: PMC3516624.
20Pope E, Koren G, Bozzo P. Sugar substitutes during pregnancy. Can Fam Physician. 2014 Nov;60(11):1003-5. PMID: 25392440; PMCID: PMC4229159.
21Petherick ES, Goran MI, Wright J. Relationship between artificially sweetened and sugar-sweetened cola beverage consumption during pregnancy and preterm delivery in a multi-ethnic cohort: analysis of the Born in Bradford cohort study. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014 Mar;68(3):404-7. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2013.267. Epub 2014 Jan 8. PMID: 24398641.
22Cong WN, Wang R, Cai H, Daimon CM, Scheibye-Knudsen M, Bohr VA, Turkin R, Wood WH 3rd, Becker KG, Moaddel R, Maudsley S, Martin B. Long-term artificial sweetener acesulfame potassium treatment alters neurometabolic functions in C57BL/6J mice. PLoS One. 2013 Aug 7;8(8):e70257. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0070257. PMID: 23950916; PMCID: PMC3737213.
23Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. Yale J Biol Med. 2010 Jun;83(2):101-8. PMID: 20589192; PMCID: PMC2892765.
24Pepino MY. Metabolic effects of non-nutritive sweeteners. Physiol Behav. 2015 Dec 1;152(Pt B):450-5. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.06.024. Epub 2015 Jun 19. PMID: 26095119; PMCID: PMC4661066.
25Pope E, Koren G, Bozzo P. Sugar substitutes during pregnancy. Can Fam Physician. 2014 Nov;60(11):1003-5. PMID: 25392440; PMCID: PMC4229159.
26Karstadt ML. Testing needed for acesulfame potassium, an artificial sweetener. Environ Health Perspect. 2006 Sep;114(9):A516; author reply A516-7. doi: 10.1289/ehp.114-a516a. PMID: 16966071; PMCID: PMC1570055.
Mag. Stephan Lederer, MSc. is an author and blogger from Austria who writes in-depth content about health and nutrition. His book series on Interval Fasting landed #1 on the bestseller list in the German Amazon marketplace in 15 categories.
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