The Truth About Artificial Sweeteners

Are artificial sweeteners used in soft drinks and foods safe? Will they make us fat? How much is too much?

What are artificial sweeteners made of?

There are five FDA-approved artificial sweeteners, and each of them has a different chemical makeup. There’s sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), neotame, and saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low). Aspartame, the sweetener most often used in diet sodas, for instance, is composed of two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine, according to the American Cancer Society. Splenda, on the other hand, is created by replacing hydrogen and oxygen in sugar molecules with chlorine atoms. “It’s a taste issue,” says Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Public Health. “They each have separate taste effects and different people react differently to each of them.”

How are artificial sweeteners different from natural sweeteners?

Although consumers may perceive “natural” sweeteners as safer, products such as fruit juices and nectars, molasses, honey and maple syrup frequently undergo processing and refining, according to the Mayo Clinic. The vitamin and mineral content of processed table sugar doesn’t differ significantly from these substitutes. Products such as Stevia, also touted as natural, are also processed and refined before being sold to the public. What is different is how your body processes artificial sweeteners versus natural ones. Essentially, the receptors your body uses to detect sweetness are “really awful,” according to Eric Walters, author of “The Sweetener Book.” In other words, the body’s sweet-taste receptor is not very sensitive. It really only detects sugar in large quantities.

Do artificial sweeteners cause cancer?

There is no clear evidence that artificial sweeteners cause cancer in humans, according to the National Cancer Institute. The public’s concern seems to stem from older studies that tested the association in rats (not humans) and used extremely high doses of artificial sweeteners.

Are sweeteners better or worse than sugar?

“That’s where it gets complicated,” Walters said. “Different sweeteners have different advantages and disadvantages. If you worry about the calories, then stay away from sugar. If you are most concerned about taste quality, sugar generally tastes best.” Some artificial sweeteners can have small side effects. If you eat too much sorbitol, for instance — a type of sweetener called a “sugar alcohol” — it can trigger gas and diarrhea. This is because your body doesn’t digest sorbitol as well, Walters said. Artificial sweeteners contain no calories, so they may aid in weight loss. Yet the new study suggests the lack of calories could also have a counterintuitive effect on the body.

So how much is too much?

The FDA recommends ingesting no more than 50 milligrams of aspartame per kilogram of body weight every day. That amounts to 22 cans of diet soda for a 175-pound man, and 15 cans for a 120-pound woman. If you’re putting two packets of artificial sugar into coffee, that would be about 116 cups of coffee for the man in this example, and 79 cups for the woman. “I really think that if you are consuming five or six cans a day, you may have more problems from consuming too much caffeine or acid than from the sweeteners,” Walters said. No large, controlled studies have shown that there is a limit to how much diet soda you can consume without harm if you’re keeping the rest of your diet in check, Popkin said. So far, at least, human research has not shown that quantity of artificial sweetener matters. “It’s not whether it’s 2 or 6 or 10,” Popkin said. “It’s a question of what else they do with their diet that counts.”

Bottom line?

As with most things in life, artificial sweeteners aren’t dangerous in moderation. Researchers will continue seeking answers to these questions and CNN will continue to report on the latest findings, in pursuit of the soda fountain of youth. Click here to read the full article.

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