How safe are artificial sweeteners?

Are they all as safe and sweet as sugar? (photo from http://www.bendbulletin.com/)

Once in a while, it doesn’t hurt to to satisfy our occassional cravings for  sweets, but how about for those who have a sweet tooth?  Americans have a serious sweet tooth and  most of them have a tendency to gain so much weight from giving in to these sweet cravings. Most Americans consume about 20 teaspoons of added sugar per day according to the USDA.  Twenty two % of calories in the diet come from sweet drinks alone. The recommedation from American Heart Association is that we limit our consumption of added sugars to about 100 calories per day. Too much sugar is unhealthy and can lead to dental problems, obesity, type 2 diabetes and more.

One of the easiest way to trim calories from our diet (aside from taking  sweets off our diet) would be to replace sweetened beverages with unsweetened or artificially sweetened beverages. Artificial sweeteners, also called sugar substitutes, are compounds that offer the sweetness of sugar without the same calories. Most people use artificial sweeteners to for less calorie intake and less weight gain. They are anywhere from 30 to 8,000 times sweeter than sugar and as a result, they have much fewer calories than foods made with table sugar (sucrose). Each gram of refined table sugar contains 4 calories while sugar substitutes have zero calories per gram.

But are artificial sweeteners safe and healthy alternatives to sugar?

According to recommendations issued by the federal nutrition, artificial sweeteners can be enjoyed and are safe for consumption. Sweeteners are safe food additives. The sweeteners include those that add  calories, such as sucrose and fructose, as well as non-calorie sweeteners, such  as aspartame, saccharin and stevia.

Are they all as safe and sweet as sugar? (photo from http://www.bendbulletin.com/)

The following are  artificial sweeteners that are calorie free and approved as safe by the FDA.

Aspartame – The little blue packet also known as Equal and Nutrasweet  and  codified as E951 in the European Union, contains two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Considered a general purpose sweetener, it is used mainly for beverages but is also included in some diet colas and desserts.  A 2007 medical review on the subject  of its safety concluded that scientific evidence indicates that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a non-nutritive sweetener. The only caution is that it should not be consumed by anyone with phenylketonuria (a genetic disorder in which the body can’t process part of a protein called phenylalanine (Phe). ) because its breakdown products include phenylalanine.  Despite rumors that it may cause cancer, FDA maintains  that Aspartame is safe. The Center for Disease Control also did some investigation  and was unable to find any significant epidemiological associations to serious risk or harm.

Saccharin –Saccharin, found in pink packets, is derived from the word saccharine, meaning of, relating to, or resembling that of sugar, and is known by the  additive code E954 in EU. It is found in diet beverages, baked goods, medicines, and toothpaste and some dietetic products. Early studies linked it to cancer but more than 30 human studies found saccharin safe for human consumption. It is less expensive and stable at high temperatures. Saccharin is allowed in most countries, except for Canada which had saccharin banned as a food additive.

Sucralose – known  in the UK as food additive E955, is found in little yellow packet is made from a sugar molecule that is chemically altered. It is a very popular table top sweetener and can be found in drinks, foods, juices and more.  Its common brand names are Splenda, Sukrana, SucraPlus, Candys, Cukren and Nevella.It is approximately 600 times as sweet as table sugar, twice as sweet as saccharin, and three times as sweet as aspartame. It holds up to high temperatures better than other sugar substitutes and has little impact on blood sugar levels. It is 600 times sweeter than table sugar and is not fully absorbed.  It can be used in baking or in products that require a longer shelf life.  Sucralose itself contains no calories but some of its brands may contain fillers, such as maltodextrin and/or dextrose which can add about 2-4 calories per teaspoon or individual packet, depending on the product, the fillers used, brand, and the intended use of the product.

Acesulfame-K (Ace-K) –marketed under the trade names Sunett and Sweet One, known in the EU as E950. It  is not as recognizable as the other sweeteners, it is made from acetoacetic acid and potassium. It is a calorie-free sugar substitute and is not metabolized or absorbed by the body. It is found in foods and drinks  can be used in baking or cooking. As with other artificial sweeteners, there is concern over the safety of acesulfame potassium. However, the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA)  and by equivalent authorities in the European Union have approved their general use.

Stevia –Extracted from the stevia plant, Stevia(also marketed as PureVia, Truvia)  is a natural but chemically extracted sweetener.It is much sweeter than sugar so less can be used to achieve sweetness. As a sweetener and sugar substitute, its taste has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar, although some of its extracts may have a bitter or licorice-like aftertaste particualrly in high concentrations. Stevia can also be used in baking.   In Japan, it is widely used as a sweetener, while it is available Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Hong Kong, Israel, Mexico, Norway,Paraguay, Russian Federation, Singapore,  Argentina, Chile, China, Colombia, Indonesia,Korea, Malaysia, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, and Vietnam  as food additive.

Health Scare on artificial sweeteners.

Health experts worry that our consumption of artificial sweeteners will increase our demand for super sweet foods and beverages. Experts say that natural sweetness from fruit pales in comparison and may no longer satisfy our desire for sweets. It may increase sugar cravings. Studies have shown that sweetness in the absence of calories may stimulate overeating, and, thus, may result to weight gain. Also, consuming artificial sweeteners in moderation is considered safe but the long-term health effects are still unknown.

What to do, then?

Artificial sweeteners do not directly cause need to cause weight gain but it is still best if artificial sweeteners are onsumed in moderation.  Control your intake of sweets and sweet beverages. Nutrition experts recommend water, sparkling water, non fat milk, unsweetened coffee and teas,  and 100% fruit juice in moderate amounts. Consult your doctor first before deciding to use artificial sweeteners.

Web References: