No getting around it, we Americans have a sweet tooth. Most of us eat the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar a day. True, you're probably not sucking on sugar cubes throughout the day, but you are probably downing more than your fair share of sugary cereals, snacks, sodas, ice cream .. and the list goes on and on.
For the average person, there's nothing wrong with sugar per se, unless all the sweet foods in your daily diet are keeping you from eating and drinking the nutritious foods you need. But for people who are trying to lose weight, or have to watch their blood sugar because of diabetes, too much sugar can be a problem. That's where artificial sweeteners can come in handy. These low-calorie sweeteners, reports the International Food Information Council, are safe to use, provide sweetness without calories, and provide a choice of sweet foods.
A 1998 survey conducted by the Calorie Control Council reported that 144 million American adults routinely eat and drink low-calorie, sugar-free products such as desserts and artificially sweetened sodas. The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners:
- Acesulfame potassium (Sunett)
- Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- D-Tagatose (Sugaree)
- Saccharin (Sweet 'N Low)
You may be surprised to see saccharin on that list. Discovered in 1879, saccharin -- which is 300 times sweeter than sugar -- was used during World War I and World War II to make up for sugar shortages and rationing. In the 1970s, the FDA was going to ban saccharin based on the reports of a Canadian study that showed that saccharin was causing bladder cancer in rats. A public outcry kept saccharin on the shelves (there were no other sugar substitutes at that time), but with a warning label that 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."
That warning label is no longer needed, says Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health. Further research has shown that male rats have a particular pH factor that predisposes them to bladder cancer. What may be true for male rats does not necessarily hold true for humans (or even for female rats); hence, no more warning labels for saccharin. "A lot of things that cause harm in animals don't always cause harm in humans," she says.
Like saccharin, aspartame is another sweetener that -- though thoroughly tested by the FDA and deemed safe for the general population -- has had its share of critics who blame the sweetener for causing everything from brain tumors to chronic fatigue syndrome. Not so, says Kava. The only people for whom aspartame is a medical problem are those with the genetic condition known as phenylkenoturia (PKU), a disorder of amino acid metabolism. Those with PKU need to keep the levels of phenylalanine in the blood low to prevent intellectual disability as well as neurological, behavioral, and dermatological problems. Since phenylalanine is one of the two amino acids in aspartame, people who suffer from PKU are advised not to use it.
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."