If you’re looking for something sweet, are you risking your health by choosing low-cal?
Somewhere along the way, Americans got the idea that plain old sugar was a bad thing.
Our current obesity epidemic had something to do with it, fueled in part by the addition of sugar to just about everything from ketchup to medication. After all, our grandparents weren’t consuming sugar with every item they put in their mouths. Apart from sprinkling a bit on their morning (unsweetened) cereal or adding some to their coffee or tea, sugar was reserved for the rare dessert or fruit topping.
One hundred years later, things have changed. We’re hard pressed to find anything at the store (besides fresh produce) that’s not laden with sugar. Between the manufacturers’ efforts to keep us coming back for their products and our natural enjoyment of sweet things, America became over-sweetened, which led to being overweight.
The solution might have been to return to our roots and consume sugar only on a rare occasion. Instead, manufacturers were intent on letting us have our cake and eat it too (at every meal, preferably), so they created synthetic sugar substitutes that contained fewer calories. The manufacturers believed this would give us everything we needed—sweet food without the consequences. Voila!
Later reports, however, showed that these artificial sweeteners aren’t the perfect solutions manufacturers wanted them to be. They have their own problems, including potential health risks. The question is, how severe are those risks?
Sweeteners Currently on the Market
The FDA has approved several artificial sweeteners for use in foods. These include:
- Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)
- Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
- Saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
Let’s look at the studies surrounding these sweeteners to determine whether any contain serious risks of adverse health effects.
A calorie-free artificial sweetener also called Acesulfame K or Ace K, Acesulfame potassium is made up of acetoacetic acid and potassium, also called a potassium salt. It’s about 200 times sweeter than natural sugar, and cannot be metabolized by the body, so it’s excreted without being absorbed. It’s highly stable, so is one of the preferred artificial sweeteners for baking.
- According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, this ingredient may have carcinogenic properties. Two animal studies showed it could have potential to cause cancer.
- This sweetener contains methylene chloride, which is considered a carcinogen by the EPA.
- Early research also shows that this ingredient may stimulate insulin secretion, possibly aggravating low blood sugar attacks.
- More studies need to be done on this ingredient to determine safety—very few have been conducted, compared to other sweeteners.
This artificial sweetener is made of phenylalanine (amino acid), aspartic acid (amino acid), and methanol (toxic, volatile flammable liquid alcohol also known as wood alcohol or methyl alcohol). It’s about 190 times sweeter than sugar. Unlike Acesulfame potassium, it is not usable in foods heated at higher temperatures, but has good stability in deep frozen products.
- A 2005 study of rats linked low doses of aspartame to leukemia and lymphoma. In female rats, these diseases were associated with daily aspartame doses equal to about three cans of diet soda a day. Later reviews criticized the study’s design and conclusions.
- Two studies presented in 2011 at the American Diabetes Association’s Scientific Sessions in San Diego showed that diet sodas (most of which contain aspertame) do not promote healthy weight loss. One study of nearly 500 participants found that diet soft drink users, as a group, had a 70 percent greater increase in waist circumference compared with non-users. Frequent users consuming two or more diet sodas a day, experienced increases that were 500 percent greater than those of non-users.
- The second study presented in San Diego found that after three months on a high-fat diet, mice ingesting aspartame showed elevated fasting glucose levels and equal or diminished insulin levels, suggesting that heavy aspartame exposure might directly contribute to increase blood glucose levels.
- According to Dr. Louis Elsas, Pediatrician Professor of Genetics at Emory University, phenylalanine (a component of aspartame) can concentrate in the placenta, causing mental retardation of a fetus. Dr. Elsas also noted that this could increase the risk of irreversible brain damage.
- Some critics are concerned about how aspartame may break down in the body, but again, studies have been inconclusive.
- Other reports of side effects include behavioral changes, depression, and irritability, again with studies on both sides of the fence.
- Studies indicating aspartame may increase risk of headaches are inconclusive. Some have shown a link, while others haven’t.
- The European Food Safety Authority reconfirmed the safety of low-calorie sweeteners like aspartame in a February 2011 review. The New Zealand Food Safety Authority made a similar statement.
This artificial sweetener is between 7,000 and 13,000 times sweeter than regular sugar. It’s chemically similar to aspartame, but manufacturers added “3-dimethylbutyl” to the formula, which is considered a toxic ingredient. Neotame can be used at lower levels and is more stable. This makes it particularly attractive to manufacturers, as they can use less and still get the sweet taste, and they can use it in a broad variety of products.
- Critics content that there were few human-based studies to establish the safety of this ingredient prior to FDA approval in 2002.
- Study subjects have reported headaches and allergic reactions.
- Studies are slim on this one, but many people are concerned that it may be more toxic than aspartame.
This is a sulfa-based sweetener is 300 times sweeter than sugar and stable when heated. The basic substance is benzoic sulfimide, which has no food energy.
- Formerly on California’s list of chemicals known to cause cancer, but was delisted in 2001. Primate studies were said to prove that the sweetener was not associated with bladder cancer. Early mice studies that linked bladder cancer with saccharin were discounted because rodents have different chemicals in their urine that was more likely to interact with saccharin to increase risk of bladder cancer.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) removed saccharin from its list of hazardous constituents and commercial chemical products, and stated in 2010 that saccharin is no longer considered a potential hazard to human health.
- The Center for the Science in Public Interest stated it would be imprudent for the National Toxicology Program to delist saccharin, which would remove incentive for further testing, exposing more people to potential health risks.
- In a 1994 study of 1,860 bladder cancer cases, researchers determined that heavy artificial sweetener use was associated with higher-grade, poorly differentiated bladder cancer tumors. Other studies found that saccharin had no link to bladder cancer.
- The sweetener is typically manufactured by combining anthranilic acid (amino acid), nitrous acid, sulfur dioxide, chlorine, and ammonia.
This sweetener is approximately 600 times sweeter than sugar, and is stable under heat, which makes it usable in a broad range of products. It’s manufactured by the chlorination of regular table sugar, with a chlorinating agent like phosphorus oxychloride.
- The FDA reviewed over 100 studies in humans and animals before approving this ingredient.
- A Duke University Study found that doses of Splenda between 100–1,000 mg/kg (higher than the FDA recommended daily intake) reduced the amount of good bacteria in the intestines of rats up to 50 percent, but these effects have not been reported in humans.
- The presence of chlorine is the main concern with this sweetener. Chlorine is a potential irritant to the eyes, upper respiratory tract, and lungs.
- An animal study found that Splenda affected the absorption of prescription medications. Long-term human studies are lacking at this point.
- A 2006 study in “Headache: Journal of Head and Face Pain” noted that sucralose may be a trigger for migraines.
- Potential side effects are gastrointestinal problems like boating, gas, and diarrhea; as well as skin irritations, mood swings, and allergic reactions.
Options to Avoid Health Risks
Perhaps most importantly, research has shown that artificial sweeteners are not effective at helping people to lose weight or to avoid weight gain. For example, a study in 2010 indicated that as a whole, artificial sweeteners don’t activate the food reward pathways in the same way as real sugar, which can actually encourage people to eat more seeking that satisfaction. On top of that, artificial sweeteners, because they are so sweet, can actually encourage sugar craving and sugar dependence.
Even though studies may be inconclusive on many other potential adverse health effects, the bottom line is that many have indicated these ingredients have the potential to cause harm—mostly, by increasing our sugar cravings and contributing to overweight and obesity.
In the end, it seems if you’re going to have something sweet, it’s best to have the real thing. To reduce your calories and maintain a healthy weight, choose naturally sweet fruits, or try one of the healthier sweetening options and cut back on your serving size.
- Try to go for a sugar-free weekend (including artificial sweeteners). You may find it hard! You may also experience real withdrawal symptoms. This may be a great way to show you how much sugar has become part of your diet, and help you start fresh with a lower sugar intake overall.
- Try natural sugar-free alternatives like xylitol and stevia leaf. (Try ours here!)
- You can always use raw honey and real maple syrup.
- Coconut sugar is made from coconut sap, and is low on the glycemic index.
- Date sugar is made from ground, dehydrated dates. Great for topping pies and cobblers.
- Molasses comes from crushed and squeezed cane, and is loaded with calcium, iron, and potassium.
- How about just adding plain old dried fruit for a little sweetness? (Try our banana powder.)
Do you avoid artificial sweeteners? What do you use instead?
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