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Artificial Sweeteners and Sugar Alcohols: Are They Safe?

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sugarfree5Artificial sweeteners are a family of man-made substances that can sweeten foods and drinks while adding either no calories or very few. On a diabetic exchange, they’re considered a free food because they have fewer than 20 calories and fewer than five grams of carbohydrate.

Technically, artificial sweeteners do not include another class of low calorie man-made products known as sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are discussed in this article because food manufacturers use them like artificial sweeteners, and then legally claim they’re offering a natural product with no artificial sweeteners.

There are three clear benefits of using artificial sweeteners and/or sugar alcohols. The primary advantage is that they don’t raise the consumer’s blood sugar, and they don’t prompt the over-production of insulin to process excess sugar in the blood. Some experts caution, however, that we may be like Pavlov’s famous dog in that any sweet-tasting food can prompt an insulin response, regardless of whether it’s made with a caloric sweetener, an artificial sweetener or a sugar alcohol. This is not a universally accepted or proven scientific assumption.

The second advantage of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols is that calorie consumption is reduced. Artificial sweeteners have zero or negligible calories, and sugar alcohols have roughly half the calories of table sugar. Lower caloric intake is, of course, the most popular weight loss theory and strategy, and is highly beneficial. That said, artificial sweeteners may not actually lessen caloric consumption because people who rely on them may intuitively consume the difference in calories from other foods and drinks. Studies related to consumption of diet soda, for example, have not always found weight loss.

The third advantage is that artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols do not trigger out-of-control eating or food binges. Out-of-control eating predominantly, but not exclusively, occurs in women. The size of this group is unknown and understudied, but is estimated to be anywhere from 25% to 40% of the dieting population. Trigger-free foods are important to people who struggle with frequent over-eating.

Every rose has its thorn, and all artificial sweeteners and all sugar alcohols are linked to a health issue or problem. Our government says the substances are GRAS, which means generally recognized as safe for human consumption, and maybe they are. There is, after all, no definitive, publicly available reporting about anyone dying directly from these sweetening agents. Further, it’s exceedingly difficult to isolate the exact impact of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols, and what major food company would fund a research study to undercut their own products?

That said, many are concerned that the FDA approval process may be influenced by large multi-national corporations with indefatigable assets and political clout. Big food companies have the resources to outsmart, outplay and outlast changes from one political administration to another. This is especially important to keep in mind now that government budgets are tightening and corporate profits are bulging.

A summary of FDA-approved artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols is provided below. Note that the FDA does not require food manufacturers to include any substance on the food label if the ingredient constitutes less than 1% of the recipe. That’s problematic because some man-made sweetening substances are so highly concentrated and potent, they can be used without showing up as an ingredient in the recipe.

SweetLow2Saccharin (Sweet’N Low)
Saccharin was first approved by the FDA in 1912 and is the granddaddy of all artificial sweeteners. It was first championed by Teddy Roosevelt who said, “anyone who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot.” Since then and to the present day, saccharin has been the subject of ongoing controversy. The FDA attempted to ban it in 1977 because some studies linked animal consumption of saccharin to bladder cancer. The ban failed, but products made with saccharin had to display a warning label. This warning label was removed 13 years later in 2000. Some claim the warning label was removed as a political favor by Bill Clinton on his way out of office. Saccharin is illegal in Canada.

Despite internet claims that saccharin is the most popular artificial sweetener, usage of saccharin in packaged foods and drinks has dramatically declined over the past 15 years, presumably because of the warning label and/or because of the introduction of sucralose. Saccharin is still available for individual purchase as a tabletop sweetener commercially known as Sweet’N Low, and it’s used in some diet sodas, typically in combination with another non-caloric sweetening agent such as aspartame.

Sweet’N Low is owned by Cumberland Packing Corp. Its ingredients are nutritional dextrose (derived from corn starch), saccharin, cream of tartar, and calcium silicate (an anti-caking agent). Saccharin is heat tolerant, and it can be used in cooking. 12 packets = the sweetness of 1 cup of sugar.

Equal-SweetenerAspartame (NutraSweet, Equal, Spoonful, Equal Measure)
Aspartame was approved by the FDA for dry goods in 1981 and for liquids in 1983. Like saccharin, aspartame is riddled with ongoing controversy. Gossip links the approval of aspartame to a political favor from newly elected president Ronald Reagan to his friend Donald Rumsfeld, who was then the president of Searle, the manufacturer of aspartame. Aspartame is now owned and manufactured by Monsanto.

Early research findings suggested that aspartame caused brain tumors in animals. In 1997 60 Minutes did a feature on aspartame linking it to brain tumors in humans. Legions of anecdotal claims have popped up linking aspartame consumption to a wide range of neurological problems such as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, migraines/headaches, dizziness, and more. Internet posts warn that aspartame should not be consumed by children or pregnant women. None of these claims has been conclusively proven. People with the genetic disease PKU (phenylketonuria) should not consume aspartame because it cannot be processed by their bodies.

Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar, and is commonly found in many low-calorie or sugar-free drinks and foods. Because the flavor breaks down under prolonged high temperatures, aspartame is best used in no-heat or no-bake recipes.

Aspartame is also known by its chemical name: phenylalanine. Some manufacturers hide small doses of aspartame in foods, supplements, and medicines, by simply saying contains phenylalanine.

The most popular table-top brand of aspartame is Equal, which is owned and manufactured by J. W. Childs Equity Partners. The ingredients in the original Equal packets are dextrose with maltodextrin, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium.

Neotame was approved by the FDA for general use in 2002. It’s chemically similar to aspartame, but about 30 times sweeter. Consequently, only very low quantities of neotame are needed to provide a sweetening quality. Neotame is safe for people with PKU.

Neotame is not available for individual purchase but is often blended with other sweeteners and is used as an ingredient in many manufactured food products. Because of the tiny dose, neotame is not always listed as an ingredient and is likely to be camoflaged as a natural flavor.

Splenda1Sucralose (Splenda)
Sucralose was approved by the FDA for general consumption in 1998, and quickly became the most popular artificial sweetening substance, not only in the United States but throughout the world. It’s used in over 4,500 foods and beverages.

Sucralose is made by chlorinating simple table sugar. The big objection to sucralose is that chlorinated compounds may accumulate in the body, be highly carcinogenic, and cause immune dysfunction. The FDA claims, however, that just 11% to 27% of the chlorinated compound is absorbed into the body.

Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than table sugar, three times sweeter than aspartame and twice as sweet as saccharin. Only a very small dose of sucralose is needed to achieve a sweetening quality. In fact, about 95% of the product that you see is maltodextrin, a flavorless white powder filler that’s enzymatically made from corn starch.

Splenda is manufactured by McNeil Specialty Products, a spin-off of Johnson & Johnson. Ingredients are maltodextrin and sucralose. Splenda measures the same as sugar and is heat stable, meaning that sweet taste and flavor hold up under prolonged cooking.

Stevia Blends
Stevia Rebaudiana is a small tropical herbal shrub from Paraguay and Brazil. (Stevia is the genus and Rebaudiana is species.) Rebaudiana, also known as Reb A or rebiana, is the extract that tastes like licorice and has a somewhat sweet quality. The FDA approved stevia leaves for use as an individual food supplement in 1995, and then in 2012 it approved stevia Reb A extract as a food additive. Like sugar, stevia extract bears little resemblance to the original plant. In fact, the 2012 FDA approval strictly prohibits use of the entire stevia leaf as an additive. Stevia in leaf form, however, can still be purchased individually as a table-top supplement.

Truvia1Stevia’s enhanced approval status immediately gave birth to a variety of stevia-blend products developed by big food companies. The two most popular stevia blends are Truvia (by Cargill/CocaCola) and Purevia (by Pepsico/Whole Earth Sweetener Co). Truvia quickly became the second most popular sugar substitute after Splenda. It’s made from rebiana, erythritol, and natural flavors. Rebiana is the stevia extract, erythritol is a sugar alcohol (a wholly man-made substance described below), and natural flavors can be anything less than 1% of the product, including neotame. Truvia does not measure the same as sugar, but it can be used in cooking.

Purevia is made from dextrose, cellulose powder, natural flavors, and rebaudioside A. Dextrose is a corn starch, cellulose is the woody fiber that comes from plants, and as already discussed, natural flavors can be anything that’s less than 1% of the product. At the bottom of the ingredients list is rebaudioside A, the least important ingredient in the Purevia recipe. Like Truvia, Purevia does not measure the same as sugar, but it can be used in cooking.

Stevia by itself is not all that sweet, which is why an enhanced sweetening agent is needed. Most typically, stevia is blended with erythritol, a sugar alcohol. Some stevia blends are made with sugar and may be referred to as light sugar. Always read the ingredients list when buying a stevia product so that you know for sure what you’re getting.

Sugar Alcohols
In layman’s terms, a sugar alcohol can be thought of as a half-sugar. That’s because sugar alcohols have (very roughly) half the sweetness and half the calories of sugar. Most sugar alcohols are about 60% to 75% as sweet as sugar and range from 2.0 to 2.6 calories per gram instead of 4. In chemical terms, a sugar alcohol partly resembles sugar and partly resembles alcohol, but it’s neither a sugar nor an alcohol, and no one gets drunk consuming sugar alcohols. Rather, sugar alcohols are compounds known as polyols. It’s easy to identify a sugar alcohol by the “ol” ending.

The most common sugar alcohols include erythritol, maltitol, sorbitol, and xylitol. Erythritol and xylitol can be purchased by individuals as a table-top supplement. But more typically, these substances are ingredients in a blend. Maltitol and sorbitol are the most common sweetening agents used in sugar-free or no sugar added products.

Sugar alcohols are made from corn (or another starch) that’s been treated with enzymes. Some sugar alcohols are made by the hydrogenation of the treated starch and others are made by the fermentation of the treated starch. Note that anything with the word hydrogenation in it should be viewed with suspicion. Hydrogenated fats, for example, are trans fats, which scientists and researchers universally agree is the most toxic man-made kind of fat. It’s unknown whether hydrogenated carbohydrates have the same toxic impact on health, and it’s impossible to know which treatment you’re getting from information on the food label.

The downside of any sugar alcohol is that it’s not fully absorbed by the body, and it ferments in the intestine. This can cause digestive and elimination problems like bloating, cramping, farting, excessive pooping or diarrhea. Because of this, it’s very important to notice and to observe the recommended serving size when consuming a sugar alcohol, which is usually 50 grams or about 1.8 ounces per serving. Not everyone is affected by sugar alcohols in the same way, and some sugar alcohols may be more disruptive than others. The population most at risk for gastrointestinal problems are children, people who are smaller than average, and people who have pre-existing digestive or elimination issues.

Sugar alcohols are also made for industrial purposes. Ethylene glycol and methanol are two non-consumable, highly toxic sugar alcohols that are used in antifreeze.

One choice is to simply stick with sugar and other caloric sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, agave nectar and corn syrup. Weight Watchers, for example, publishes and recommends recipes that use table sugar rather than artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols. Obviously, then, you can eat sugar and still lose weight. Still, for some, caloric sweeteners are metabolic poison and lead to excessive pigging out. You have to decide where you fit on the continuum. Can you handle a little sugar or not? Are highly processed caloric sweeteners more or less objectionable to you than artificial sweeteners, which are also highly processed?

Another choice is to eat clean. Eating clean is a style of eating where all processed foods are eliminated from the diet and only whole, natural foods are consumed. Under this scenario all caloric sweeteners, all artificial sweeteners and all sugar alcohols are eliminated from the diet. Eating clean is the ideal choice in an ideal world, but it may be too big of a leap for anyone except the most inspired people. Again, you have to decide for yourself if you’re ready to make a dramatic eating and lifestyle change or if you’d prefer a smaller one.

The last choice is to pick the least objectionable artificial sweetener and to use it in moderation. Moderation means that the substance is consumed in small amounts and no more than twice a day. This is my personal vote and my personal sweetening style. Bottom line: Only you can decide what you will or will not put in your mouth. My mission in writing this article is to give you the information and the inclination to figure it out.

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About Karen Bentley

Author, Educator, Speaker, Founder of The Sugar-Free Institute and creator of The Sugar-Free Miracle Diet. Visit www.karenbentley.com, www.sugarfreeinstitute.com, www.sugarfreemiracle.com.