Artificial sweeteners have become a popular solution for many people looking to cut calories and sugar from their diets, without sacrificing the flavor of sweet foods and beverages they enjoy.
But there’s also a lot of suspicion about the health effects of consuming artificial sweeteners, especially over a long-term period.
What’s the truth? Are these artificial sweeteners safe?
BENEFITS OF ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS
The most obvious benefit of artificial sweeteners is that they provide virtually no calories–unlike sugar or most natural sweeteners, which can provide a lot of calories, even in small amounts.
Although most artificial sweeteners do technically contain calories, the sweetness level of most is so high that only a tiny amount is necessary to sweeten food.
Also, since most artificial sweeteners don’t affect blood sugar levels, they are usually safe for diabetics to consume. The main exception to this rule regards sugar alcohols, which can affect blood sugar levels, though not as much as “real” sugar.
RISKS(?) OF ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS
Artificial sweeteners have been accused of contributing to possible increases in cancer or heart disease, depending on the brand/type of sweetener.
However, these products have been rigorously tested, and studies indicate that the risk of significant health issues to the average person is negligible; most health issues are limited to individual reactions to specific formulas of sweetener, and are usually minor.
Studies have indicated that consumption of artificial sweeteners can result in increased levels of appetite, and can specifically lead to increased desire for sweet foods.
The effects can vary from person to person or sweetener to sweetener. Not all sweeteners will produce these effects on all people.
CAN YOU OVERDOSE?
Not easily. The FDA sets an “acceptable daily intake (ADI)” level for each type of sweetener. This is how much the FDA recommends you consume each day.
You usually need to consume around 100 times the ADI level–and all at once–in order to risk any ill effects on your health. This is very difficult to do, even intentionally.
Here’s an overview of some popular sweeteners on the market in the United States and elsewhere in the world.
Saccharin (Sweet’N Low, Sugar Twin):
Saccharin is one of the oldest sweeteners in use, dating back to the 1800s, and is still one of the most popular. Saccharin has virtually no calories and is safe for consumption by diabetics.
Saccharin can leave an aftertaste, especially in large amounts.
Saccharin was at one time linked to a possible risk of bladder cancer due to testing performed on rats.
However, the tests performed used levels of saccharin hundreds of times greater than what a human would consume; later tests on humans revealed that there was in fact no risk of bladder cancer in humans, due to the differences in the way human biology and rat biology process saccharin in large quantities.
Saccharin is generally agreed to be safe for consumption. No other health risks are associated with saccharin consumption.
Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet):
Aspartame was created in the 1960s, and is one of the more popular sweeteners on the market today. It isn’t completely calorie-free, and doesn’t taste exactly the same as real sugar, but is very low-calorie and is safe for diabetics to consume.
However, aspartame is not safe for people with phenylketonuria to consume, as it contains an amino acid that can’t be metabolized properly by people with this condition.
Apart from the health risks for people with phenylketonuria, there are no other known, verified health risks associated with aspartame consumption.
Many accusations have been leveled against the safety of aspartame, but none of them have been proven, and aspartame is approved for use in over 90 countries. Still, testing continues to be performed on aspartame, due to the amount of controversy surrounding it.
There have been accounts of aspartame causing relatively mild side effects in specific people, such as headaches or increased appetite. These effects aren’t common enough to be of concern to the FDA, but are worth looking out for–if you experience these, try a different sweetener instead.
Sucralose has been in use since the 1990, making it one of the newest artificial sweeteners on the market. It’s also one of the most powerful in terms of its sweetness. It has virtually no calories and is safe for consumption by diabetics.
Due to the fact that sucralose has only been on the market a limited amount of time, no long-term studies on the effects of consumption have been performed; however, short-term studies indicate no particular health risks.
There have been suggestions that the chlorine in sucralose might be of concern, but testing hasn’t confirmed this to be cause for alarm.
Acesulfame Potassium/Acesulfame K (Sweet One, Sunett):
Acesulfame is a fairly new sweetener introduced in the late 1980s, and isn’t as well-known as other varieties. It’s a little controversial because due to its young age, it hasn’t been as rigorously tested as some other sweeteners.
It also contains an ingredient which is suspected as potentially carcinogenic; ill effects from this ingredient haven’t been confirmed in studies, but many people call for additional testing before it can be considered safe.
Acesulfame is safe for consumption by diabetics.
Neotame is a variant of aspartame which is even sweeter.
Due to its chemical composition, it can be consumed safely by people with phenylketonuria. It’s also safe for diabetics.
Like acesulfame, netotame hasn’t been on the market long enough to determine if there’s any significant risk of long-term effects. Also, it can have some of the same short-term effects as aspartame, such as headaches.
Cyclamate is less powerful than most other artificial sweeteners, and is frequently combined with other sweetener types to enhance its effect. It leaves less aftertaste than saccharin. It is safe for consumption by diabetics.
Cyclamate is not available in the United States, though it is used in many other countries in the world.
The ban on cyclamate in the United States is due to studies on rats that produced similar results to the studies performed with saccharin. However, like the studies performed with saccharin, the amount of cyclamate given to rats was hundreds of times higher than what a human would consume daily, and subsequent tests could not reproduce these results. The FDA has since acknowledged that cyclamate poses no proven health risk to humans, but has not lifted the ban. It seems likely that cyclamate will be legal for sale in the U.S. in the future, though exactly when is undetermined.
Elsewhere in the world, cyclamate is used in dozens of other countries (such as much of Europe) without restriction.
Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate that are similar in chemical structure to sugar and alcohol, but are different from either. Sugar alcohols aren’t considered an “artificial” sweetener, but are instead considered a “sugar substitute”.
Sugar alcohols are generally not quite as sweet as regular sugar, but they also provide less calories than sugar. They are often used in conjunction with other artificial sweeteners to improve their effectiveness.
Sugar alcohols are not completely safe for diabetics; their effects on blood sugar are less than the effects of real sugar, but consumption still needs to be limited.
Sugar alcohols aren’t completely absorbed by the body during digestion, which is why they provide fewer calories; however, as a result of this lack of absorption by the body, consumption of sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal discomfort (gas, bloating) or have a laxative effect.
This usually only occurs when consumed in fairly large quantities, though the amount required can vary from person to person.
IS THERE ANYTHING TO WORRY ABOUT?
Despite all the suspicion that gets thrown towards artificial sweeteners, pretty much all studies and research have indicated that they are safe–a viewpoint that is backed up by their consumption–and mass acceptance–by millions of people.
Even suspicions of ill effects due to long-term use of sweeteners is dubious. Most artificial sweeteners have been on the market for several decades (in the case of saccharin, over 100 years!).
They’ve been consumed by millions of people over many years, without any notable negative effects.
The only possible exception is with relatively recent sweeteners such as sucralose, where their long-term effects over decades of use hasn’t been established; even then, studies indicate there is little to no risk of injury to health from long-term consumption.
So, unless you have phenylketonuria, and can’t consume aspartame, you really have nothing to worry about, unless you simply don’t like a certain kind of sweetener for one reason or another.
DON’T GET CARELESS WITH THE REST OF YOUR DIET!
Your main concern is making sure that you maintain a healthy diet so you don’t offset the calories you save by consuming artificially sweetened food and drink! You see, just because artificial sweeteners are calorie-free doesn’t mean that the food products that use them are calorie-free as well.
Many artificially sweetened food products still have a fairly high amount of calories–they just have less than naturally sweetened versions would have.
Also, make sure you don’t offset the benefits of low-calorie artificially sweetened foods by overeating foods that are high in calories.
Sure, maybe you can eat more of the stuff you like and still break even, but you won’t lose weight this way–and if you’re not careful, and take in more calories from “regular” food than you saved by eating artificially sweetened foods, you’ll still gain weight.
As mentioned before, some artificial sweeteners can produce a feeling of increased appetite in some people. Be wary of this!
If you find yourself still feeling hungry after consuming foods or drinks made with artificial sweeteners, consider trying a different sweetener to see if the feelings of hunger go away.