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Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?

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

The Saccharin Saga continued...

"The cancer risks are not something that an individual person should worry about," CSPI's Jacobson says. "It's more a risk for the government as the potential problems occur when millions of people consume the sweeteners for years," he tells WebMD.

But cancer risk may not be the only safety concern with these artificial sweeteners.

"My overlying feeling is that artificial sweeteners are safe," says ACSH's Kava. "The only caveat is asparatame in people with a rare disorder known as phenylketonuria (PKU), who are unable to metabolize phenylalanine. PKU is detected at birth through a mandatory screening program.

Jacobson adds that in the short term, some people develop headaches after consuming foods sweetened with aspartame.

As far as short-term effects, sugar alcohols -- technically not considered artificial -- can cause bloating and diarrhea in some people and the effect may occur with as little as 50 grams of sugar alcohol. These sweeteners include sorbitol. Lactitol and mannitol are lower in calories than sugar, don't promote tooth decay, or cause an increase in blood sugars, according to the FDA.

Some of these "can cause powerful diarrhea and people ought to pay some attention to that," CSPI's Jacobson says.

The key is really to know your body and your limits, Roxland adds. "Sometimes it says right on the package that 'excess consumption may have a laxative effect' but does that mean two Velamints will give you the runs?" she says. "I have known some people who eat two pieces of gum and have the worst diarrhea and others who chew a whole pack and are fine," she says.

Overdosing on Equal?

As far as nonsugar alcohol sweeteners, Roxland does not see a tremendous potential for overdose. "Even if a person binges on low-calorie Fudgesicles or Creamsicles, as long as their diet is otherwise healthy, there is no downside because they would probably be bingeing on something a lot worse," she says.

One thing is clear, consumers embrace these sweeteners. As many as 180 million Americans routinely eat and drink sugar-free products such as desserts and artificially sweetened sodas, according to 2004 statistics compiled by the Calorie Control Council, and with new products in the pipeline and on the shelves, the trend shows no sign of abating.

The newest artificial sweetener on the block is sucralose (SPLENDA). It is not affected by heat and retains its sweetness in hot beverages, baked goods, and processed foods. This has some advantages, Roxland says. "Nutrasweet can't be stored for long periods and you can't cook with it, but Splenda is heat stable so you can use it in cooking."

There are others in the pike including alitame (brand name Aclameâ„¢), which is 2,000 times sweeter than sucrose. A petition for its use in a broad range of foods and beverages has been filed in the U.S.

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