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Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?

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

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Artificial sweeteners do not affect blood sugar levels, but some foods containing artificial sweeteners can still affect blood sugar because of other carbohydrates or proteins in these foods. In other words, while foods that contain artificial sweeteners may be sugar-free, they may not be carbohydrate-free.

Just because a food contains artificial sweeteners instead of sugar is not carte blanche for grazing, Kava points out.

"The real key to weight loss is calories," Kava points out. "If you substitute a diet soda for a sugar soda, you save 100 calories, but if you eat 15 sugar-free cookies [which have calories] instead of two regular cookies, you may not be helping yourself at all," she says.

"If somebody is trying to lose weight and cut back on calories, artificial sweeteners can add flavor to unsweetened beverages or other products," says Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in Washington. That said, "somebody who consumes a lot of artificially sweetened foods should think twice about their diet and ought to be eating real food," he tells WebMD.

"I don't think [artificial sweeteners] are needed at all," he says. "I fear that in some cases people have a diet soda for lunch and then have a couple of tablespoons of ice cream -- giving up the saved calories," he says.

Using sugar substitutes instead of sugar can lower your risk of tooth decay, but "the acid in diet soda still could contribute to dental erosion," Jacobson points out.

The Saccharin Saga

Safety, particularly as it relates to cancer risk, is on many people's mind as a result of the saccharine saga, which began in the 1970s. In 1977, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tried to ban this sweetener as animal studies showed that it caused cancer of the bladder, uterus, ovaries, skin, and other organs. But the food industry intervened, urging Congress to keep it on the market with a warning label that (until recently) read: "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals."

In the late 1990s, the Calorie Control Council stated that the main health concern about saccharin was bladder cancer in male rats -- not people. They stated that further research has shown that male rats have a particular predisposition to bladder cancer and as a result the National Institutes of Health removed saccharin from its hit list of cancer-causing agents.

"Congress said no to the [original call for a] ban due to backlash but stated that there has to be a warning," ACSH's Kava recalls. "More recently, Congress de-listed saccharin as very high doses may cause bladder cancer in male rats -- not in female rats or anyone else," she says. According to the National Cancer Institute, there's no scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer.

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