Sugar is a hard habit to break, and one way to keep a little sweetness in your diet is to switch out sugar with artificial sweeteners. While sugar substitutes may satisfy your sweet tooth and lower your calorie count, they aren’t always the best choice for your health. Here’s what leading health institutes, including the Mayo Clinic, say about artificial sweeteners.
What are artificial sweeteners?
While artificial sweeteners are defined as synthetic sugar substitutes, they may be created from natural substances such as herbs or even sugar itself. Often they have an intense sweet taste that is stronger than sugar, and they should be used in much smaller amounts. They are often used in processed foods such as soft drinks, canned foods, baked goods, and candy. Home cooks also use artificial sweeteners as sugar substitutes in baked items.
Several artificial sweeteners have been approved by the FDA; some of the most commonly used are saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose.
Saccharin: This longstanding artificial sweetener, which was discovered in 1879, is sold under brand names such as Sweet and Low, Sweet Twin, Sweet’N Low, and Necta Sweet. According to the FDA, saccharin is between 200 and 700 times sweeter than sugar. It is calorie-free and acceptable for use in fruit juice drinks and beverages, processed foods, and home cooking. It has no nutritional value.
Saccharin was labeled a carcinogen after laboratory rats tests with saccharin developed bladder cancer in the 1970s, but more than 30 human studies since have found that those results did not apply to humans. The FDA no longer requires food and drink products that contain saccharin to bear a warning label.
Aspartame: Approved by the FDA in 1981 as a sweetener, aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar and contains some calories. Consumers will find it in brands such as Nutrasweet, Equal, and Sugar Twin, and it can be used as a tabletop sweetener and in chewing gum and cold breakfast cereals. It can also be found in powder bases for foods such as puddings, dairy products, gelatins, and instant coffee. It becomes unstable when heated, so it is not suitable for baked goods. However, aspartame is often used to sweeten carbonated drinks, such as diet sodas.
The most current scientific findings conclude that aspartame is safe for human consumption. More than 100 studies back up this viewpoint; however, people who have a rare hereditary disease called phenylketonuria (PKU) should avoid aspartame because they have a hard time metabolizing phenylalanine, a component of aspartame.
Acesulfame: You will find this non-nutritive sweetener listed as “acesulfame K,” “acesulfame potassium,” or “Ace-K” on food label ingredient lists. It’s sold as Sunett and Sweet One, and it’s about 200 times sweeter than sugar. More than 90 studies support the conclusion that it is safe for human consumption.
The FDA has issued two approvals of acesulfame. In 1988, it was approved for food and beverages, and in 2003 its approval was widened for use as a general-purpose sweetener and flavor enhancer in foods, except meat and poultry. (Certain other conditions apply.) Because it can sustain heat, acesulfame is suitable as a sugar substitute in baked goods. You’ll find it in candy, baked goods, frozen desserts, and beverages.
Sucralose: Sold as Splenda, the FDA approved sucralose for 15 food categories in 1998; a year later, the FDA approved it as a general-purpose sweetener after reviewing 110 safety studies. It’s about 600 times sweeter than sugar, and it’s typically found in baked goods, chewing gum, frozen dairy desserts, gelatins, and beverages.
Neotame: The sweetest of the FDA-approved artificial sweeteners, neotame is between 7,000 and 13,000 times sweeter than sugar. It was FDA-approved in 2002 as a general-purpose sweetener and flavor enhancer in food other than meat and poultry, and it’s sold under the brand Newtame. It can sustain high heat and can be used as a sugar substitute in baked goods.
The FDA reviewed more than 113 studies of neotame’s effects on animals and humans including research that considered possible effects on the nervous, reproductive, and immune systems.
Are they safe?
There are certainly some benefits to artificial sweeteners. Because they have no calories, they can significantly reduce a person’s calorie intake if they are trying to lose weight. Artificial sweeteners can benefit people with diabetes, as they don’t raise blood sugar levels. They also don’t cause tooth decay.
The National Cancer Institute and other health organizations have said that scientific evidence has not shown that FDA-approved artificial sweeteners cause cancer or other major health issues. The FDA defines the artificial sweeteners it has approved as “generally recognized as safe,” which means they have a history of common use in food and the scientific data shows they are safe for use as intended.
As with many foods, however, artificial sweeteners should be consumed in moderation. One potential issue with them is their hyper-sweetness—because they are much sweeter than sugar, they may overstimulate our taste receptors, potentially causing us to find less-sweet foods (even naturally sweet foods, like fruit) less appealing. In addition, artificial sweeteners’ intense sweetness and lack of calories subverts a natural norm. Regular consumption of artificial sweeteners may cause us to stop associating sweetness with caloric intake, which can lead us to choose sweets over more nutritious foods.
The FDA has set recommended limits for the consumption of artificial sweeteners, and consumers should not consider them a cure-all or silver bullet for sugar issues. Whole foods, including fruits and vegetables, will always be the healthier choice.