The Safety of Artificial Sweeteners

Health Professional

Artificial sweeteners are widespread, from soda to yogurt and beyond, and many people wonder about the potential safety issues. Generally, with rare exceptions, these sugar substitutes appear to pose little or no risk when used in moderation.

Artificial sweeteners provide the sweetness of sugar without the same calories and hike in blood sugar levels. But while artificial sweeteners themselves do not raise blood sugar, some foods containing artificial sweeteners still affect blood sugar levels because of other carbohydrates or proteins in these foods.

On a diet, artificial sweeteners are considered "free foods" which means they don't count as a carbohydrate, a fat, or any other exchange. This can be useful when used appropriately for people with certain medical conditions (like diabetes) who need to control their sugar intake and in people trying to restrict calories.

Here's a rundown of the current FDA-approved artificial sweeteners:

Acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One): Acesulfame K is found in many food products and can be used in baked goods. Its safety is backed by a multitude of studies, according to the FDA.

Saccharin (Sweet 'N Low, Sugar Twin): Saccharin was close to being banned in 1977 due to rat studies linking it to bladder cancer. The National Cancer Institute and the FDA have since concluded that its use is not a major risk for bladder cancer in humans.

Aspartame (Nutra-Sweet, Equal): The American Medical Association and the FDA have both concluded that aspartame is safe in moderation. One exception: People with a medical condition called phenylketonuria (PKU) should avoid it. These people cannot metabolize part of aspartame, allowing it to accumulate in the body to dangerous levels.

Sucralose (Splenda): Sucralose is sugar chemically altered into the non-caloric sucralose. Splenda can be substituted for sugar in baking and cooking.

Neotame: Neotame is a recently approved artificial sweetener made by the same company that produces NutraSweet (aspartame). Products containing neotame are not required to carry the PKU warning as it is chemically different from aspartame and therefore does not have the same issue described above.

Some experts remain wary

Although artificial sweeteners are considered generally safe, some experts continue to be cautious. These folks believe that there's just not enough evidence on some of these sweeteners to be completely certain of safety.

It is important to note that while artificial sweeteners are often the subject of stories claiming they cause a variety of health problems, there's currently no scientific evidence that proves any of the approved artificial sweeteners are to blame.

A note about artificial sweeteners and weight loss

While many turn to artificial sweeteners as a way to cut calories, this may not be the best strategy in a weight loss (or weight maintenance) plan.

Some studies have shown that this technique may actually backfire and impede your best efforts at weight loss or weight control. One recent study in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience found that rats that ate food containing non-caloric sweetener gained more body weight and had less tendency to later compensate for a high-calorie meal compared to rats that ate food sweetened with glucose. The authors of the study noted: "It is conceivable that just as exposure to non-predictive sweet taste-calorie relationships in the laboratory appears to promote increased body weight and body adiposity in rats, the widespread use of non-caloric sweeteners in the food environment of humans may have similar effects on the predictive validity of sweet tastes and ultimately on the normal ability of humans to control their intake and body weight."

Translation: It's possible that use of non-caloric sweeteners may actually promote weight gain, or at least make it harder for you to lose weight.

How to get by without them?

If you decide that artificial sweeteners may not be the best addition to your personal diet and fitness plan, here are some tips for "the sweet life", without 'em:

  • Drink decaffeinated herbal tea, iced or hot, or flavored seltzer water instead of diet soda.

  • Start to cut back on the sugar you add to foods. You can actually retrain your sweet tooth to cool it a bit.

  • Read food labels and compare grams of sugar. Pick the brands with less sugar as often as you can.

Fruits can be a wonderful way to satisfy a sweet tooth, naturally. Check out some new selections, to spice up your old routine.

Bottom Line

It's OK to use artificial sweeteners sensibly. It's also an excellent idea to work on reducing the amount of sugar you consume. Drink a diet soda now and again; just make sure that the majority of your diet consists of more nutritious selections.