Sweet Nothings: Making Sense of Artificial Sweeteners

PHOTO: Packages of Equal and Splenda artificial sweeteners are displayed at a coffee shop April 9, 2007 in San Rafael, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The American Heart Association says we're eating more than a spoonful of sugar -- way more. The average American has about 22 teaspoons of the sweet stuff daily, the equivalent of about 335 calories. While there's no question we should cut back on sugar, are artificial sweeteners part of the solution? Here's a rundown on six common sugar substitute options.

Common Sugar Substitutes

Aspartame

Also Known as: NutraSweet, Equal, Spoonful, and Equal-Measure

Origin: An accidental byproduct discovered in 1965 during experiments to develop a peptic ulcer drug.

Found in: More than 6,000 products including diet beverages, dairy products, desserts and tabletop sweeteners. Consumed by more than 200 million people worldwide.

The Skinny: Even though it has been extensively studied, controversy swirls around this sweetener like crystals of Equal in a cup of coffee. Though Internet message boards are loaded with accusations linking aspartame to various illnesses -- including headaches, memory loss, depression, cancer and more -- there's little hard evidence to back up such claims. Governments all over the world have repeatedly declared it safe in moderate amounts; in 2007 the FDA revisited the question by reviewing over 200 studies (some industry funded) and found no reason to issue warnings or pull it from the market.

Common Sugar Substitutes

Stevia

Also known as: Stevia Extract In the Raw, SweetLeaf, Only Sweet, PureVia, Truvia

Origin: Stevia is derived from the leaves of a South America and Central American shrub that's now grown all over the world, even in potted house plants. It's been sweetening things up worldwide for decades but was only approved for use as a food additive -- not a sweetener -- in the U.S. in 2008.

Found in: In Japan, more than 40 percent of artificially sweetened products contain stevia. Here in the U.S. it's slowly been added to over 600 food items including candies, soft drinks, sports drinks and soy sauce.

The Skinny: On the upside, studies, including a 2010 investigation published in the journal Appetite, show stevia lowers glucose and insulin levels more readily than other sweeteners, making it a good choice for diabetics. On the downside, some animal studies suggest an association with infertility; claims it causes cancer appear unsubstantiated. Once again the Internet is rife with complaints about disagreeable, albeit short-term, side effects after consumption such as dizziness, muscle pains, numbness, nausea, gas and bloating.

Common Sugar Substitutes

Sucralose

Also Known as: Primarily marketed as Splenda and less commonly as Sukrana, SucraPlus, Candys, Cukren and Nevella.

Origin: Another accidental lab creation, this sweetener was discovered in 1976 by scientists in search of new insecticides.

Found in: Used in 4,500 food and beverage products, most commonly candy, sodas and cereal.

The Skinny: The FDA also says it's safe to consume and unlike most of the other sweeteners, it can be used in cooking and baking. Its marketing implies sucralose is natural and "just like sugar," but it's actually cooked up from chlorinated hydrocarbons.

Common Sugar Substitutes

Saccharine

Also Known as: Sweet'N Low

Origin: In the late 19th century a chemist noticed the bread he was eating at dinner was unusually sweet. By licking his hands and clothes, he was able to trace the taste back to a spill in the lab. By 1907, this coal tar derivative was being used as sugar substitute marketed to diabetics.

Found in: In little pink packets on the counters of diners everywhere; also, in beverages and other low-cal products.

The Skinny: If you're a male rat, steer clear. Numerous studies have shown saccharine causes bladder cancer in rats, but scientists have determined it poses no threat to human safety. In 2000, saccharin was removed from the list of chemicals that cause cancer in humans. Out of the five FDA-approved artificial sweeteners, saccharin is often deemed to be the safest.

Common Sugar Substitutes

Neotame

Also Known as: Sunett, Sweet One

Origin: Invented (intentionally) by the makers of Nutrasweet.

Found in: There's no labeling required for this additive so it's hard to know. It's reported to have been found even in certified organic baked goods.

The Skinny: One of only two artificial sweeteners ranked as "safe" by the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest -- the other is sucralose -- and its makers claim it's even harmless enough for pregnant and breastfeeding moms. There's too little research on this sweet additive to make a judgment call.

Common Sugar Substitutes

Acesulfame-K

Also Known as: It is listed in the ingredients on the food label as acesulfame K, acesulfame potassium, Ace-K, or Sunett.

Origin: Yet another 1960s lab blunder made by a German chemist with a penchant for tasting his own concoctions.

Found in: Name just about any type of sweetened product and you might find Acesulfame-K, even in gum, mouthwash and toothpaste.

The Skinny: When this sweetener is cooked up in the lab, methylene chloride, a solvent otherwise used in the production of paint stripper, degreaser and propellant gas, is used. Needless to say, this is a contentious point with consumer groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who say concerns over cancer and other worrisome effects have gone unaddressed by the FDA. The FDA has resisted additional long-term studies.

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