The Truth on Artificial Sweeteners
Sweetness and Light
Some people can be sensitive to sweeteners and experience symptoms such as headaches and upset stomach, but otherwise, there is no credible information that aspartame -- or any other artificial sweetener -- causes brain tumors, or any other illness, says registered dietitian Wendy Vida, with HealthPLACE, the health and wellness division of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield in Pittsburgh.
Kava says that since sweeteners are so much sweeter than sugar, a very small amount is needed to achieve the same sweetness one gets from sugar. "If used normally, the amounts you take in are so minuscule as to be of no concern at all."
Another sweetener receiving much publicity of late is stevia, an herbal sweetening ingredient used in food and beverages by South American natives for many centuries and in Japan since the mid-1970s. According to Ray Sahelian, MD, author of The Stevia Cookbook, stevia has shown no significant side effects after more than 20 years of use in Japan. "There are no indications at this point from any source that stevia has shown toxicity in humans," says Sahelian, though he agrees that further research is warranted.
Because stevia is not FDA-approved, it can not be sold as an artificial sweetener; however, it can be -- and is -- sold as a dietary supplement. Because these supplements are not regulated as well as those that have received FDA approval, and therefore have no guarantee of purity, Kava is leery about the use of stevia. "This is a product that's just asking for good research studies," she says. "We just don't know enough yet."
Though there are any number of people quick to point out what they believe are the dangers of artificial sweeteners, others think that they may actually have beneficial properties -- apart from reducing calorie intake and managing diabetes. Researchers at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, for example, have found in several preliminary studies that aspartame is "especially effective in relieving pain associated with osteoarthritis, multiple sclerosis, and sickle cell anemia."
Whether artificial sweeteners are shown in the future to have therapeutic effects remains to be seen, says Kava. For now, though, their main purpose is to help people reduce caloric intake and/or control diabetes. If you don't need to watch your calories or your blood sugar, there is no real reason to use the sweeteners unless you just happen to like the taste, says Kava. "But if you need to control your sugar and caloric intake, artificial sweeteners are a safe, effective way to do that."