The Skinny on Artificial Sweeteners

Of all of the flavors that we are able to experience, the ones that bring us the most pleasure are often the sweetest. There is no question that sugar is one of America’s favorite things. It is also one of our biggest health hazards. Scientists have actually determined sugar to be an addictive substance and the negative health effects of sugar overload are posing a serious problem to both our waistlines and our overall health. We know of these dangers, of course, but we love our sweets. So in an effort to be more health conscious and make the best choice for our bodies we often turn to what seems to be a better alternative -- artificial sweeteners. Today, there are so many artificial sweetener options available that you might assume that they are safe alternatives for satisfying your sweet tooth. However, the truth is that artificial sweeteners can be just as damaging to your health as real sugar and in some cases could actually be much worse.

Artificial sweeteners are synthetic substances that are generally much sweeter than regular table sugar. Some artificial sweeteners are derived from natural substances such as plants, herbs or even sugar itself. The fact that some of these sweeteners are sourced from natural ingredients does not make them any more wholesome than their chemically created counterparts. Nearly one half of adults and fifteen percent of children under the age of seventeen consume beverages and other food items that are sweetened with artificial sugar substitutes on a regular, if not daily, basis. The popularity of artificial sweeteners is reason enough to give them a closer look and seriously consider the potential health risks associated with them.

You might recall that saccharine, one of the most popular and widely used sugar substitutes, was once under fire due to studies that showed it to cause bladder cancer in laboratory animals. This research was first conducted decades ago when artificial sweeteners were just beginning to make their way onto the consumer market. In the time that has passed since then, saccharine, and other artificial sweeteners, have undergone further research and scrutiny. Some of this research supports the theories that artificial sweeteners are harmful, while others have shown them to be completely safe and others still report that they are safe, but only with restrictions on quantity consumed. With such conflicting reports, what are you to believe? While the FDA has approved artificial sweeteners to be safe food additives, it is important that as a consumer, and an advocate for your own health, you look at all of the potential risks and make informed decisions that you feel are best for your own body and health. Some common health issues associated with artificial sweeteners include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Intestinal distress
  • Weight gain
  • Metabolic issues
  • Sugar addiction
  • Inflammation
  • Allergic reactions

More serious potential side effects of artificial sweeteners may include:

  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Diabetes
  • Seizures
  • Dementia
  • Brain lesions
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Cancer

It is first important to understand that all of the sugar alternatives that you might find on your grocer’s shelves or your favorite food items are artificial sweeteners. Other classes of sweeteners include sugar alcohols, natural sweeteners and novel sweeteners. Here, we are looking strictly at those classified as artificial sweeteners. Currently there are six sweeteners that the FDA considers safe as food additives. Let’s take a little closer at each of them.

  • Saccharin: Saccharin is the oldest artificial sweetener on the market and can be found under the brand names of Sweet'N Low, Necta Sweet and Sweet Twin. The long history of use of saccharin means that there has been plenty of time for it to develop a good reputation, as well as for it to be surrounded by controversy. Original findings saw an increase in cancerous bladder tumors in rats when exposed to saccharin. Since then, some scientists have attempted to debunk the association between saccharin and cancer in humans by showing that there is no real evidence of causation. The FDA also considers saccharin to be a safe food additive. What is important to keep in mind is that any time a substance causes cancer in laboratory animals we should give serious consideration to its safety, and use our best judgment when it comes to personal consumption. Saccharin is also a sulfonamide, which is a known allergy trigger in many people with food sensitivities.
  • Aspartame: Aspartame is a popular sweetener that you will recognize by the brand names of NutraSweet or Equal. This sweetener which was approved for use first in dry goods and then carbonated beverages in the early 1980s can be found in over six thousand different foods. Aspartame is composed of three different chemicals; aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol. Each one of these chemicals can be considered toxic in their own right, however add them together and you have a potentially dangerous, albeit legal substance, on the market. It is estimated that aspartame is responsible for nearly seventy-five percent of all reactions to food additives. The ranges of possible side effects of aspartame consumption are reported to be everything from mild headaches to depression and even brain lesions.
  • Sucralose: Although saccharin is the oldest artificial sweetener on the market, sucralose, which goes by the brand name Splenda is the best selling. You might hear sucralose being marketed as a more natural alternative to artificial sweeteners because it is derived from real sugar. The problem is that the real sugar is treated with multiple dangerous and toxic chemicals, including trityl chloride, hydrogen chloride, thionyl chloride, and toluene, just to name a few. Sucralose can be found in tens of thousands of products around the world. Consumption of sucralose is thought to damage gut health, worsen diabetes and cause severe headaches. One of the most concerning things about sucralose is that before it reaches about 250°F it begins to break down and release dioxins, which are well known endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. This means that sucralose is not suitable for cooking or even in some hot beverages; especially if you like to heat your drinks to extremely hot temperatures and then let them cool down over a period of time.
  • Neotame: One of the more relatively new artificial sweeteners on the market, neotame was approved for use by the FDA in 2002. This sweetener, which is manufactured by the same company that manufactures NutraSweet can be up to 13,000 times sweeter than regular table sugar. Neotame is similar to aspartame, however it does not present some of the same issues to people with certain health conditions such as PKU. However, given that aspartame is responsible for so many negative food reactions, it is easy to see how neotame, being closely related to aspartame, can cause many of the same issues. At this time there is little information and no accessible studies that prove the safety of neotame.
  • Acesulfame potassium: This sweetener, which can be found under the names Ace-K or Sunett has the advantage of being stable when heated. This makes it a better choice for baked goods or hot beverages. The main issue with acesulfame potassium is that even though it has been in use since the 1980’s and has been approved by the FDA, there is little research that proves its safety. Additionally, this sweetener contains methylene chloride, which is a known carcinogen.
  • Advantame: This is the newest addition to the list of FDA approved artificial sweeteners. This sweetener, originally from Japan, has been approved to be safe as a food additive except for when it is added to meat and poultry. Advantame is derived from aspartame and therefore is very similar in chemical structure. This means that it also carries with it some of the same negative associations as aspartame. Additionally, there is some evidence that points to Advantame causing intestinal distress, compromised immune function and prenatal developmental issues in laboratory tests.

Sugar is bad for you, but it looks like artificial sweeteners are even worse, so what are you supposed to do? The answer is about moderation. The average person consumes way too much sugar and reducing your intake might be the best thing you can do for your health. Maybe you are looking to reduce your sugar intake because you are trying to lose weight, or you are just trying to make better decisions for your health. It could also be that you need to reduce your sugar intake because of an immediate health concern. Whatever has brought you to this point; it is best to stick to natural sweeteners unless you have been otherwise directed by your doctor. As a general rule, if an ingredient label lists anything “artificial” it is best to put it down and look for different, natural option. Here are a few suggestions for reducing the amount of added sugar you consume while also avoiding potentially toxic artificial sweeteners.

  • First, try to kick the sugar habit. This is probably one of the hardest things to do, but the effects on your health are worth it. Start by cutting out added sugar from the most obvious sources such as sweet goods and sweetened drinks. Next, start reading nutritional labels and ingredients. You will be surprised at how many sneaky places you will find sugar, especially in processed foods. Once you begin to eliminate the sources of sugar, your cravings for sweetness will begin to decrease.
  • Choose naturally sweet treats. Fruits are bursting with natural sweetness and generally are low in calories, high in nutrients and better tolerated by people with blood sugar issues. Eat a piece of fruit raw, blend it into a smoothie, bake it with a little cinnamon, cut it up into a fruit salad or explore new and exotic fruits.
  • Choose natural sweeteners. Sweeteners such as honey, molasses, fruit juice, pure maple syrup, date sugar and agave nectar add sweetness to your drinks and treats, plus they also offer a slightly different taste than regular sugar. These items are also richer in flavor than regular sugar and a little bit goes a long ways. But make no mistake – they are sugars, and just like with table sugar, moderation is key.
  • If you absolutely must go with a sugar substitute pick a sugar alcohol such as erythritol, isomalt, sorbitol or xylitol. Naturally derived sweeteners, such as stevia, are also a better alternative to artificial sweeteners. Sugar alcohols are sweet carbohydrates that occur naturally in foods such as fruits, but they can also be manufactured in a laboratory. Some sugar alcohols can cause intestinal distress when consumed in large quantities.

At one point it seemed as though artificial sweeteners were the answer to our problematic relationship with sugar. They appeared to be the magic elixir that let us not only have our cake, but indulge ourselves without limits. Unfortunately, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is, and this is very much the case with the artificial sweeteners that are available to us today. When it comes to the sweetness in your life, just remember that natural is best and the sweetest things in life are meant to be savored and appreciated.