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How Sweet It Is: A Guide to Artificial Sweeteners

Posted Apr 28 2010 6:40pm

Sugar and sugar relatives like high fructose corn syrup are bad for you.  They make you fat, especially in your belly.  They raise your blood sugar and increase triglycerides.  They put you at risk for heart disease and diabetes. They rot your teeth, and they make some people out-of-control crazy with food. 

That adds up to a lot of very good reasons to cut back on sugar, but really, are artificial sweeteners any better?  Like sugar, artificial sweeteners are all highly processed substances.  Even worse, they’re man-made, and man-made substances almost never end up being good for us, especially if we eat a lot of them.  

On the surface, non-caloric sweeteners seem to be better.  Of course, the biggest benefit is that you don’t ingest as many calories, and caloric reduction is the most popular weight loss theory of the day.  Another benefit is taste.  It’s a big leap to go from a diet that has hidden sweeteners in almost everything to a diet that has no sweetening agent whatsoever.   And lastly, most non-caloric sweetening substances don’t raise blood sugar, and this advantage is definitely worth considering if you’re a type 2 diabetic or if you’re one of those people having a hard time losing weight.   

That said, recent studies suggest that diet drinks and food products might not be producing the intended result.   According to Consumer’s Research Magazine, “There is no clear-cut evidence that sugar substitutes are useful in weight reduction.  On the contrary, there is some evidence that these substances may stimulate appetite.” 

People who drink a lot of diet sodas, for example, are not losing weight or inches, and it’s been shown show that rats being fed artificial sweeteners overeat and get fat.   There’s also the fact that some of these substances have a long history of bad press from our very own FDA and other governments, as well as laundry lists of health problems empirically reported by concerned individuals.   At this point in time, our government says artificial sweeteners are safe, but no guidelines are provided for limits on consumption.  

There are four categories of alternative sweetening options available to you:  artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, stevia (an herb with sweet leaves), and blends that are made with various combinations of all these options.  Some blends even include regular table sugar.   This article is focused exclusively on artificial sweeteners.  The three most readily available, widely used artificial sweeteners in the U.S. are aspartame, saccharin and sucralose.   Let’s look at each of these in more detail.  

Aspartame(commercially sold as NutraSweet, Equal, Canderel)
Aspartame was discovered by accident in 1965 at G.D. Searle.  In 1981 the FDA approved it as a table top sweetener.  In 1983 it was approved for use in carbonated beverages, and in 1996 it was approved for use in foods and all other drinks.  

Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar, and is currently the most popular artificial sweetener in the U.S.  It has four calories per packet, and 24 packets equals one cup of sugar.  Because aspartame loses sweetness when subjected to heat for long periods of time, it’s not a suitable choice for baking.  If aspartame is used in stove-top cooking, don't add it until the last five minutes of cooking to maintain sweetness.

Aspartame is approved for use by the American Diabetes Association and other major public health organizations that promote weight loss.   At the same time, a small army of individuals continue to object to the controversial way in which aspartame got FDA approval, which came about when the Donald Rumsfeld, then the CEO of Searle, used his personal relationship with President Ronald Reagan to push it through.  

Another more troubling and compelling issue regarding aspartame comes from individuals who claim to suffer serious neural health problems due to aspartame consumption.  These reports include a lower threshold for seizures, increased incidents of brain tumors, greater prevalence of multiple sclerosis, numbness in limbs and more.   The alleged harm is due to the fact that methanol, one of the ingredients in aspartame, breaks down into formaldehyde.  Consuming large amounts of methanol is thought to have a cumulative and toxic effect, especially for children. 

A second health problem is caused by phenylalanine, another chemical ingredient in aspartame.  Phenylalanine is dangerous to the estimated 10 million people who have PKU or phenylketonuria.  This is a genetic disorder where the enzyme needed to metabolize phenylalanine is missing.   If you’re interested in learning more about individual health concerns regarding aspartame, check out Sweet Misery, a documentary on DVD by Cori Brackett.

Saccharin(commercially sold as Sweet N Low and Necta Sweet)
Saccharin was discovered by accident in 1879, and is the great grandmother of all artificial sweeteners.  It didn’t become popular and widely used, however, until there was a sugar shortage brought on by WWI.  Saccharin is currently the third most popular artificial sweetener in the U.S.

When it comes to health and safety regulation, saccharin has a long and confusing history, littered with flip-flops in FDA position.  The FDA first began inspecting saccharin way back in 1907 due to concerns that it might be carcinogenic.   Even President Teddy Roosevelt, a diabetic and saccharin user, got into the saccharin debate.  “Anybody who says saccharin is injurious to health,” he said, “is an idiot.” 

More recently, in 1972 the FDA attempted to ban saccharin, but the ban was not successful.  In 1977 Canadians claimed to conclusively determine that saccharin causes cancer in animals, and they banned it from their country. (This Canadian ban is still in effect.) In the same year the FDA required that all U.S.-based saccharin products carry this warning label:  “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health.  This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”  

Then in 2000 the U.S. National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences concluded that saccharin should be removed from the list of known or suspected human carcinogens.  This time it was President Bill Clinton who was responsible for removal of the warning label, which was lifted as part of his massive regulation changes and pardons just before leaving office.Saccharin is 200 times sweeter than sugar, but has a bitter after taste, which is why food manufacturers often use it in combination with other sweeteners.  

Saccharin has four calories per packet, and 12 packets equal one cup of sugar.  It’s heat stable and can be used in cooking.  It’s been shown to trigger an insulin response in rats, presumably from taste stimulation.

Sucralose(commercially sold as Splenda, Nuvella and store brands)
Sucralose was discovered in 1976 and is 600 times sweeter than sugar.  It’s currently the second most popular artificial sweetener in the U.S., and is projected to overtake aspartame for the number one position.  The FDA approved sucralose as a table top sweetener in 1998 and as a food additive in 1999.  According to the National Cancer Institute, the FDA viewed more than 100 safety studies which showed no evidence that sucralose causes cancer or poses a human health threat.  Some experts claim it’s no more dangerous than table salt.  

Sucralose is made by chlorinating sugar.  Three hydrogen atoms are replaced with three chlorine atoms.  This process removes the calories from sugar but maintains the taste.  Maltodextrin, a bulking agent, is added to the product so that the volume exactly matches sugar.  Most of what you see when you purchase sucralose is actually the maltodextrin filler, which is made from the partial hydrolysis of starchy vegetables or vegetable roots.  Very little sucralose is needed because it’s so sweet and potent.  

Each packet of sucralose has 3.31 calories, and one cup of sucralose is exactly equal to one cup of sugar.  This makes it an easy and convenient type of product for home use.  It’s also heat stable and can be used in every kind of cooking.  Sucralose has no effect on glucose or insulin production.  

The biggest health safety concerns have to do with the fact that sucralose hasn’t been around for a long time, and the impact of heavy usage may take a while to reveal itself.  Another issue with sucralose has to do with whether or not the chlorine is absorbed into the body.  Predictably, the manufacturer claims that none is absorbed while other resources say that anywhere from 11% to 27% might be absorbed.  All things considered, sucralose is definitely the least objectionable type of artificial sweetener.

The bottom line:You have to decide for yourself what is or isn’t safe and how much of these substances you want to put in your mouth.   Keep in mind that the approval process for artificial substances is highly influenced by research that’s financed by the corporations who manufacture and sell the products.

In any case, your best health bet is to use any artificial sweetening product in moderation, which means limiting consumption to two or three servings per day.   If you’re a moderate consumer of artificial sweeteners, it probably doesn’t matter what type of substance it is.  If, on the other hand, you’re a heavy user, then sucralose is highly recommended.

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Karen Bentley is a sugar-free expert and the creator of The Sugar-Free Miracle™ Diet System, the most popular sugar-free e-book program on the internet. For more information about how to take off weight and lose inches by cutting out sugar, visit  www.sugarfreemiraclediet.com

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