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It’s no secret that we Americans like our sugars. We each consume about 100 pounds of sugars per year on average, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most of that sugar is added sugar, and for most people, it comes from soda and other sugary beverages. While it’s not the only reason for the obesity problem in America, it certainly contributes to our collective expanding waistlines. Sugar not only helps make us fat, but it also contributes to diabetes, tooth decay and heart disease, among other problems.
Artificial sweeteners, also known as non-nutritive sweeteners, are calorie- and carbohydrate-free substitutes for sugar. Because artificial sweeteners don’t raise blood sugar, they are often recommended to people with diabetes and people who are trying to lose weight. It’s true: Some evidence suggests a possible link between certain sweeteners and cancer in animals, and some consumers have reported unhealthy side effects from them. But the research and evidence in these cases are weak. Here’s more on the main artificial sweeteners sold in the U.S. today:
Sold in stores as Equal and NutraSweet, aspartame is perhaps the most famous – or infamous – artificial sweetener approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This may be because it is the most common sweetener in diet sodas and other sugar-free items. In fact, it’s found in approximately 6,000 products worldwide and is commonly marketed as a health food. About 200 times as sweet as sugar, aspartame is best for cold and uncooked foods, because it breaks down when heated and becomes less sweet. However, since aspartame’s approval in the early 1980s, there have been a number of campaigns claiming that it is dangerous and should be removed from the market.
Extensive research has been done on the safety of aspartame, and so far it appears to be safe for humans. Studies have shown that very large doses of aspartame cause cancer in rats, while other studies suggest aspartame has negative side effects, such as dizziness, headaches and irritability. However, these studies are largely considered invalid due to poor methods, and comprehensive research reviews suggest aspartame is safe, even in large amounts, for most people.
People who should not consume aspartame are those who have a rare metabolic condition called phenylketonuria, and those with advanced liver disease. These people have a hard time metabolizing phenylalanine, an amino acid component of aspartame. Over time, high levels of phenylalanine can cause brain damage in these individuals. For everyone else, the FDA maintains that aspartame is safe to consume, and research currently backs up that claim.
Sucralose is a molecule that starts out as sugar, but it’s chemically modified to be calorie-free by substituting chlorine atoms for other atoms in a sucrose molecule. You’ve probably seen it commercially marketed as Splenda. Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar per gram, and it’s safe for baking, because it is stable at very high temperatures. Almost no artificial sweetener is free from scrutiny, however, and claims similar to those against aspartame link sucralose to cancer risk and adverse side effects.
Aside from trials in mice (but not other animals), no studies have found harmful effects of sucralose. Approved for consumption by the FDA in 1998, a number of studies have found sucralose to be safe, and many consider it to be one of the safest non-nutritive sweeteners.
This is the earliest known artificial sweetener on the market, discovered in 1878 and now commonly known as Sweet’N Low. Having been around for so long, saccharin was banned for use in processed foods in 1912, but it was still sold to the public directly, and it was a popular staple for those looking to lose weight. Later, World War II brought about a sugar shortage that brought the sweetener back into processed foods. Due to studies on rats in the 1970s that showed a clear link to bladder cancer, saccharin products were required to carry a warning label that advised consumers about the research. Later, it was determined that the risk exists only in male rats, so the labels have since been removed and saccharin is now considered safe.
Saccharin is cheaper than other sugar substitutes to manufacture, and it’s thought by many to have propelled the popularity of no-calorie sweeteners. During the times when a ban on saccharin was considered, aspartame and sucralose were in speedy development as a safer alternative. Saccharin is about 300 times sweeter than sugar, and while it was once the king of calorie-free sweeteners, other products are generally favored over saccharin today. It’s hard to know if its perilous history has anything to do with that, or if it’s because it is the least-natural sweetener on this list, but it certainly paved the way for the rest of the artificial sweeteners.
Acesulfame potassium, also known as acesulfame-K and ace-K, is usually sold under the brand names Sweet One and Sunett, and it’s been on the U.S. market since 1988. Even though it is 200 times sweeter than sugar, it can have a slightly bitter taste and is commonly used with other sweeteners in gum and candies for people with diabetes. More recently, ace-K has been used with sucralose in no-calorie soft drinks that claim to taste better than diet sodas and more like regular sodas.
Even though it has been around for more than 25 years without any problems, ace-K is not studied as extensively as other artificial sweeteners. Many scientists have suggested further studies on animals, but the FDA maintains that it’s safe. Ace-K is also a preservative, extending the shelf life of beverages.
This is the newest artificial sweetener on the market, having gained FDA approval in 2002 as a food additive. It is manufactured by the aspartame company NutraSweet, and it was discovered by modifying the aspartame molecule. By far the sweetest on this list at about 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, neotame is mainly added to soft drinks and low-sugar dairy products, but it isn’t widely used because it has a strong flavor. Those who believe aspartame is unsafe for consumption are wary of neotame as a sweetener, but studies thus far have shown it to have a better safety profile than aspartame.
Known best as Truvia and Pure Via, stevia marketers often boast this artificial sweetener as the “natural” no-calorie sweetener. Although stevia products are derived from a South American shrub, and indigenous people have been using it as a sweetener for years, the products sold at the grocery store are technically processed foods. It’s about 200 times sweeter than sugar, but some people claim it has a bitter aftertaste. Also known as rebiana, stevia products are not currently considered safe by the FDA, although rodent research is still underway. Because stevia is still being studied, it is not approved as an additive in processed foods, only for individual sale as a dietary supplement, which the FDA has little control over.
The Bottom Line
The FDA has much less control over food additives than it does over drugs, and because these sweeteners are manufactured by for-profit companies, many consumers are wary of their safety. The truth is that hundreds of studies all over the globe have corroborated the safety of these products, and to suffer ill health effects you would need to consume quite a bit more than you are likely to. How much? A 150-pound woman would have to consume 20 diet sodas per day, every day, for aspartame, and levels are similar for other sweeteners.
That said, non-nutritive sweeteners are found mainly in processed foods. Even though processed foods are fine sometimes, a healthy diet high in fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and lean protein is always better. The more of these foods you eat, the fewer processed foods you’ll have room for. Plus, the more sweet foods you eat, the more you tend to want, and studies have shown that a diet high in safe artificial sweeteners still promotes overeating. As with anything sweet, low-sugar, high-calorie foods should still be eaten in moderation.
This article originally appeared on U.S. News.
Sugar packet photo courtesy of Shutterstock.