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Clinical Studies and Practice

Nonnutritive sweeteners are not supernormal stimuli



It is often claimed that nonnutritive sweeteners (NNS) are ‘sweeter than sugar’, with the implicit implication that high-potency sweeteners are supernormal stimuli that encourage exaggerated responses. This study aimed to investigate the perceived sweetness intensity of a variety of nutritive sweeteners (sucrose, maple syrup and agave nectar) and NNS (acesulfame-K (AceK), rebaudioside A (RebA), aspartame and sucralose) in a large cohort of untrained participants using contemporary psychophysical methods.


Participants (n=401 total) rated the intensity of sweet, bitter and metallic sensations for nutritive sweeteners and NNS in water using the general labeled magnitude scale.


Sigmoidal dose–response functions were observed for all stimuli except AceK. That is, sucrose follows a sigmoidal function if the data are not artifactually linearized via prior training. More critically, there is no evidence that NNS have a maximal sweetness (intensity) greater than sucrose; indeed, the maximal sweetness for AceK, RebA and sucralose were significantly lower than that for concentrated sucrose. For these sweeteners, mixture suppression due to endogenous dose-dependent bitter or metallic sensations appears to limit maximal perceived sweetness.


In terms of perceived sweetness, NNS cannot be considered supernormal stimuli. These data do not support the view that NNS hijack or overstimulate sweet receptors to produce elevated sweet sensations.

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Supplementary Information accompanies this paper on International Journal of Obesity website


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The authors thank Alissa L. Allen, MS and Emma L. Feeney, PhD for assistance with protocol development and testing, and Rachel Primrose, BS for participant scheduling and assistance in the Sensory Evaluation Center. We also thank our study participants for their time and participation. Funding was provided by the Pennsylvania State University and a National Institutes of Health grant from the National Institute National of Deafness and Communication Disorders [DC010904] to JEH.

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Competing interests

RGA declares no potential conflict of interest. JEH has previously accepted speaking and consulting fees from Tate & Lyle PLC, Symrise AG, PepisCo, and General Mills, Inc. for unrelated projects. He also serves on the Scientific Advisory Board of Medifast, Inc. His laboratory also conducts routine taste tests for the food industry to facilitate practical student training. None of these organizations have had any influence over study conception, design or interpretation, or the decision to publish these data.

Correspondence to J E Hayes.

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