What Do We Know About Artificial Sweetners?

An artificial sweetener is a sugar substitute which duplicates the effect of sugar in taste but has fewer calories. Some sugar substitutes are natural and some are synthetic. Those that are not natural are, in general, referred to as artificial sweeteners.

Certain sugar substitutes are known as high-intensity sweeteners. Sweetness of these compounds exceeds many times the sweetness of sucrose which is our common table sugar. As a result, much less sweetener is required, resulting in minimal calorie consumption. The taste of artificial sweetener is not as good as our regular sugar. So they are often used in complex mixtures that achieve the most natural sweet sensation.

Is it safe to use artificial sweeteners?

Six intensely-sweet sugar substitutes have been approved for use in the U.S. They are saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium, and stevia. Artificial sweeteners are considered food additives and hence regulated and approved in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration.

In Canada, food additives are also subject to rigorous controls under the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations. New food additives (or new uses of permitted food additives) are only permitted once a safety assessment has been conducted, says Health Canada website. Several artificial sweeteners have been approved for use in Canada (see Health Canada website).

Let us look at couple of examples where safety questions have been raised.

Does saccharin cause cancer? Saccharin is a man-made sweetener that is used in food products in many countries. Health Canada says that in the 1970s, scientific studies raised concerns that saccharin could be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) in laboratory rats. As a result of these studies, saccharin was not permitted as a food additive in Canada, although restricted use of saccharin as a table-top sweetener has been allowed.

Since that time, further studies have revealed that the carcinogenic effect of saccharin in rats does not have the same effect on humans. Health Canada says that their scientists have thoroughly reviewed the scientific information available and as a result are considering re-listing saccharin in the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations to allow its use as a sweetener in certain foods.

Is aspartame safe? Aspartame is a non-nutritive sweetener first approved for use in foods and as a table top sweetener in Canada in 1981. Health Canada’s scientists evaluated an extensive array of toxicological tests in laboratory animals, and more recently, a large number of clinical studies in humans. Aspartame is also currently permitted for use as a sweetener in food in many countries and its safety has been carefully examined by health authorities and international expert groups around the world.

Stevia is a herbal supplement and is used as a sweetener. But there is not enough research on stevia’s safety as a sugar substitute and there is some controversy about its approval.

According to the National Cancer Institute (U.S.), there’s no scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the United States cause cancer. And numerous studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are safe for the general population.

Here are some examples of commercially available artificial sweeteners: Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), Saccharin (Sweet’N Low, SugarTwin), Acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One), Sucralose (Splenda).

Diabetics and weight watchers who use artificial sweeteners should know that if they consume “sugar-free” drinks and food that are high in carbohydrates and proteins then these products may contain calories that may undermine your ability to lose weight and control blood sugar. Remember, it is not only what you eat, it is also how much you eat.

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2 Replies to “What Do We Know About Artificial Sweetners?”

  1. Thanks for an informative column. My wife and I have switched from regular Ginger Ale to trying Diet Ginger Ale (a mistake by the grocery delivery store), and by reading the label found that the Diet had 0 calories. We noted that the sweetener was Aspartame and wondered how safe that product was to consume. We both take a number of meds every day and sharing a can or two per day of Ginger Ale helps to calm an upset stomach.

    We also add Splenda to an adult son’s coffee, who has a weight issue, and he says the sweetener tastes just fine.

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