Intense Sweeteners and Preservatives: Contemporary Regulation and Historical Baseline Data of the Nature and Amounts in Soft Drinks on open sale in Northern Ireland

M J Walker(1)(2), J Mairs(2) and D Thorburn Burns(3)

1 To whom correspondence should be addressed: Michael Walker Consulting Ltd, 29 Dorchester Drive, Newtownabbey, BT36 WP, Northern Ireland.
2 Formerly of the Laboratory of the Public Analyst for Northern Ireland, 16 Donegal Square South, Belfast, BT1 5JJ, Northern Ireland.
3 School of Chemistry, The Queen’s University of Belfast, Belfast, BT9 5AG, Northern Ireland.


    Food additives consistently attract consumer interest and some concern despite the existence of strict regulation. This paper describes the current regulation of intense sweeteners and preservatives in Northern Ireland. The authors have also collated previously unpublished survey data from 1999 and 2004 thus placing baseline information in the public domain on the nature and the amounts of intense sweeteners and preservatives in soft drinks on open sale in Northern Ireland at those times.

     The 1999 survey covered ice cream and meat products which were analysed for colours and soft drinks which were analysed for intense sweeteners. The latter aspect is reported here. Of 35 soft drinks 15 samples (42.9%) failed to meet legal requirements; 11 (31.4%) for defective or misleading labels, 3 (8.6%) because of excess saccharin and in one case (2.8%) failure to declare the presence of saccharin and aspartame.

    Similar findings were also a feature of the 2004 survey when 121 samples of various, mainly soft drinks were analysed for intense sweeteners and preservatives where18 samples (14.9%) failed to meet legal requirements. Defective or misleading labels accounted for 10 (8.3%) failures, 3 (2.5%) had excess saccharin, one (0.8%) failed to declare the presence of sucralose, acesulphame K and aspartame, 3 (2.5%) had excess benzoic acid and one (0.8%) failed to declare the presence of benzoic acid.

    The means and ranges of concentrations found are reported for the additives studied. The risk of non-compliance appears to be correlated with the mean concentration expressed as a percentage of the maximum permitted concentration. For example for saccharin this was around 75% while for acesulfame K and aspartame the figure was less than 50%.

    Benzoic acid was found in 7 out of 8 samples containing cranberry juice, in which benzoic acid is known to occur naturally. Where present the concentrations found ranged from 4 – 29 mg L-1 with a mean of 13 mg L-1.

    Failure to disclose the presence of aspartame, a source of phenylalanine, is a risk for sufferers of phenylketonuria (PKU).

    The authors suggest that the collection and presentation of data in the manner reported herein, now facilitated electronically by the UK Food Surveillance System, UKFSS, might become a future feature of UKFSS annual reports in Northern Ireland

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