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WebMD gets the low down on artificial sweeteners on the shelves and in the pipeline.

The way artificial sweeteners were discovered could have been a scene out of the classic comedy The Nutty Professor.

In 1879, Ira Remsen, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., noticed that a derivative of coal tar he accidentally spilled on his hand tasted sweet. While he did not morph into the slim, but obnoxious Buddy Love as the characters played by Eddie Murphy and Jerry Lewis did in their film versions of the comedy, his spill set the stage for the development of saccharin -- an artificial sweetener known today to many seasoned dieters as Sweet-n-Low. This is now the most recognized name brand of the saccharin-based sugar substitutes.

Now more than 125 years later, saccharin is joined by a growing list of artificial sweeteners with varying chemical structures and uses including acesulfame potassium (Sunett); aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal); sucralose (Splenda), and D-Tagatose (Sugaree). And there's a whole host of new ones on the horizon.

These products substitute for sugar. For example, they can replace corn syrup, used in many sodas and sweetened drinks, and table sugars. However, the sweet remains in anything and everything from chocolate and ketchup to gum, ice cream, and soft drinks. But are artificial sweeteners safe? Can they help people shed extra weight? What role should they play in person's diet -- if any?

Here's what WebMD found out:

Artificial sweeteners, also called sugar substitutes, are compounds that offer the sweetness of sugar without the same calories. 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. Many sugar substitutes have zero calories per gram.

"Artificial sweeteners can serve a definite purpose in weight loss and diabetes control," says New York City-based nutritionist Phyllis Roxland. "It enables people that are either carb-, sugar-, or calorie-conscious to take in a wider range of foods that they would either not be allowed to eat or could only eat in such teeny amounts that they were not satisfying." Roxland routinely counsels patients in the offices of Howard Shapiro, MD, a weight loss specialist and author of Picture Perfect Prescription.

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