Artificial Sweetener Side Effects
Artificial Sweetener Side Effects
Artificial sweeteners like Aspartame are just plain confusing. Here’s a quick breakdown of the facts on sugar substitutes!
To start, you should know that six low-calorie sweeteners have been approved by the FDA as safe for human consumption. In order of approval, they are: Saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), sucralose, neotame, rebaudioside A (Reb A).
Cyclamate, another low-cal sweetener has not been approved by the FDA, and it is currently banned in the US. The product has been approved by over 50 other countries around the world, so you might want to think twice before you drink that Canadian diet soda (seriously... Canadian Sweet N’Low is actually made with the stuff). Considering the FDA has approved some “foods” that most of us consider pretty nasty (high fructose corn syrup, anyone?), I would suggest keeping a good distance from anything they haven’t deemed safe.
Another category of sweeteners, called sugar alcohols, are FDA approved and found in sugar-free hard candies, gums, and even protein bars. These differ from artificial sweeteners in that they can be partially metabolized by the body (low-cal, but not calorie free!). They are known for causing gas and diarrhea, so it’s probably a good idea to eat them in small amounts.
The following six sweeteners are much more recognizable by their household names, so let’s take a look:
Sweet N’Low: Saccharin. This is arguably the most controversial of the bunch as it has gone through a political roller coaster ride over the past 50 years. Saccharin was banned due to studies showing cancer in rats, and then approved in the late ‘70s after Congress was met with a brutal campaign from the Calorie Control Council (read: diet drink industry). Up until 2000, products made with saccharin were required to display this statement: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. The product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in lab animals” ... scary.
Equal/Nutrasweet: Aspartame. The stuff you typically find in your diet sodas. This artificial sweetener actually contains calories because it is made from amino acids, which can be digested. Aspartame also contains methanol, which can be extremely harmful to your body in very large doses. Since you aren’t drinking hundreds of cans of diet coke each day, neither the miniscule amount of calories, nor the methanol, should worry you.
As a side note, you may have noticed this disclaimer on your can: Phenylketonurics: contains phenylalanine. Unfortunately, this has many people thinking phenylalanine is somehow terrible for your health (Someone even told me they thought it was another name for speed.) Phenylalanine is actually an essential amino acid, meaning you need it in your diet to build proteins. It also happens to be a component of aspartame. The warning on the can is addressed to phenylketonurics, meaning people with the disease phenylketonuria (PKU). PKU is a genetic disease diagnosed at birth, in which you are unable to metabolize phenylalanine and must follow a low-phenylalanine diet. Sound like gibberish? Basically, if you don’t know about it, you don’t have it, and you need not be concerned!
Sunett/Sweet One: Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K). Usually found in conjunction with aspartame or sucralose in diet soft drinks.
Splenda: Basically Sucralose. Contrary to popular belief, sucralose does not contain natural sugar. However, Splenda is great for baking for those who need to watch their sugar intake. It is frequently used for baking because it equates cup for cup with real sugar.
Neotame: Okay, so not quite a household name, but this is because it hasn’t been approved as a tabletop sweetener and is typically found as an ingredient in low-sugar foods and drinks. While most artificial sweeteners are about 200-600 times sweeter than sugar, neotame can be up to 13,000 times sweeter!
Truvia/PureVia: Rebaudioside A (Reb A). This is the newest sweetener to the bunch, approved in 2008. You’ve probably seen it advertised as the “natural” sweetener, since it is derived from the Stevia plant. While this is partially true, do not confuse the two! Stevia is still sold at health food stores as a supplement (meaning not controlled by the FDA), typically in a powder form. Reb A is an extract of Stevia’s very sweetest component.
All of these six sweeteners have been FDA approved. Unlike sugars, they do not promote tooth decay, and they are low in calories. There is no research supporting an association between artificial sweeteners and cancer in humans, and nothing that shows a relationship between cancer in lab animals and humans...
On the flip side, there is no research showing these products will not eventually lead to cancer. So my suggestion is to err on the side of caution. After all, these are chemicals we’re talking about! And since most of us can’t be bothered to follow the constant stream of research published on the subject, Center for Science in the Public Interest makes it easy. Just follow their recommendations on Chemical Cuisine. Here’s a look at what they have to say about the fake sugar:
Personally, I prefer the real stuff like dark chocolate (in moderation, of course!), but you decide!ShareThis
About the Author
Alyssa grew up in New Hampshire and is a lover of any activity that involves mountains (especially the Greens and the Whites!). She speaks Mandarin Chinese and Japanese and lived in both countries as an undergrad (which partially explains her love for Beijing eggplant, lychee, and anything green tea flavored). Currently, she lives in New York City and is working on her master’s degree in public health nutrition at NYU. For the past year, she has been working at NYU School of Medicine’s Center for Immigrant Health, and last fall was awarded the Gstalder Memorial Scholarship for her research and service in minority health. Active in the Greater New York Dietetic Association, Alyssa is working with student members to create a low-literacy cookbook and nutrition guide for cancer patients, which she hopes to have translated into Chinese and Spanish. Before getting into nutrition, she spent time working for several environmental groups, including The Nature Conservancy in Yunnan, China, the Missouri Botanical Gardens in Madagascar, and the Green Mountain Club on The Long Trail in Vermont. Alyssa was recently accepted to a dietetic internship program at the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in the Bronx, where she will begin work in the fall.
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