Artificial Sweeteners: The Sweet Truth

photo from ThinkStock via Tri County Health Dept

Whether you’re a fan of sugar or its low calorie substitutes, this article is for you. Artificial sweeteners, such as Splenda, have gained popularity over the years as they provide the same sweetness factor as sugar with few to zero calories. The belief is that replacing sugar with these low-to-no calorie options will decrease the risk of obesity, type II diabetes, and heart disease which are associated with excess caloric intake.

Let’s begin by noting that sugar is not toxic. When consumed in moderation, sugar is perfectly safe. However, the majority of people eat far too much of it. Sugar is often consumed as added sugars, which refers to any sugar or syrup added to foods during processing, preparation, or before consumption. Excess calories from sugar often lead to overweight and obesity over time, which are predisposing factors to several comorbidities such as those mentioned previously. In order to avoid these complications the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends women consume no more than 5 teaspoons, and men no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugars per day. In order to avoid the calories in sugar, people are turning to artificial sweeteners to satisfy their sweet cravings.

The safety of artificial sweeteners is determined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The US Food Additives Amendment of 1958 requires all new food additives to undergo a strict market approval process unless the substance is generally recognized as safe (GRAS). The GRAS exemption requires the same standard of safety as food additives, that is “the reasonable certainty of no harm.” To be listed as GRAS the substance must undergo testing by the manufacturer and a GRAS notification process through the FDA. If the FDA is not opposed, the food additive may be labeled as GRAS. To be considered a food additive, the petitioner (manufacturer, company, or interested partner) must assemble and present all required safety data relevant to the proposed use of the additive in accordance with the FDA safety guidelines. To determine the safety of a food additive, the FDA considers: probable intake, cumulative effects from all uses, and toxicological data. With the approval of these additives, the FDA has set an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for these sweeteners. The ADI is a specific amount that can be consumed daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risks based on all of the known facts at the time of evaluation.

The five artificial sweeteners currently approved as food additives by the FDA are acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, saccharin (interim basis), and sucralose (see table below).

Name (chemical name) Brand Names Calories (kcal) per Gram (g) Times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose) ADI Use in foods
Acesulfame K (5,6-dimethyl-1,2,3-oxathiazine-4(3H)-1,2,2-dioxide) Sunett, Sweet One 0 kcal/g 200 15 mg/kg BW Approved for general use, except in meat and poultry. Combines with other NNS; stable at baking temperatures
Aspartame (L-aspartyl-L-phenylalanine methyl ester) Equal, NutraSweet, others 4 kcal/g 160-220 50 mg/kg BW Approved for general use. Degrades during heating
Neotame (N-[N-3,3-dimethylbutyl)-L-a-aspartyl]-L-phenylalanine-1-methyl ester) No brand names 0 kcal/g 7,000-13,000 18 mg/kg BW Approved for general use, except in meat and poultry. To date, little used in food processing
Saccharin (1,1 –dioxo- 1,2- benxothiazol-3-one) Sweet’N’Low, Necta Sweet, others 0 kcal/g 300 Prior sanctioned food ingredient; no ADI determined Limited to <12 mg/fl. oz. in beverages, 20 mg/serving individual packages, or 30 mg/serving in processed foods
Sucralose (trichlorogalactosucrose) Splenda 0 kcal/g 600 5 mg/kg BW General use; heat stable for cooking and baking

 

Despite the FDA’s approval of these artificial sweeteners, their safety remains questionable in research. Artificial sweeteners have been associated with increased weight gain, brain tumors, bladder cancer and many other health implications in laboratory animals. Human studies have also linked artificial sweeteners to increased headaches, worsened symptoms of depression and other mental disorders, among others. However, studies remain inconclusive for a number of reasons. For example, mechanistic studies conducted on Saccharin show that the same mechanism that causes bladder cancer in rats does not translate to humans. Researchers also claim that the high doses of artificial sweeteners used in these studies are not comparable to consumption of artificial sweeteners by humans. According to the National Cancer Institute (NIH), there is no scientific evidence that any artificial sweeteners approved in the United States cause cancer. In addition,

“…the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics claims that adults can safely enjoy a range of artificially sweetened foods and beverages when consumed in a diet that is guided by federal nutrition recommendations, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans”.

While evidence is lacking on the safety of consuming artificial sweeteners, the FDA has reason to believe that each one is safe when consumed under the ADI. Keep in mind that artificial sweeteners should only be used to replace sugar and not as an excuse to consume more naturally sugary foods or beverages. It is also important to remember that although excess calories from sugar can lead to negative health effects, it is perfectly safe in moderation!

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