Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?
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
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
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
"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
In other words, artificial sweeteners allow people to stick to a good diet
for a longer period of time, she says. In a diet, artificial sweeteners are
considered "free foods." The sugar substitutes don't count as a
carbohydrate, a fat, or any other exchange.
"These products can be useful when used appropriately for people like
diabetics who need to control their sugar intake and in overweight people," agrees Ruth Kava, PhD, RD,
director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health
(ACSH) in New York City.