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How Sweet It Is: A Guide to Artificial Sweeteners

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Sugar and sugar relatives like high fructose corn syrup are bad for you. They make you fat, especially in your belly. They raise your blood sugar and increase triglycerides. They put you at risk for heart disease and diabetes. They rot your teeth, and they make some people out-of-control crazy with food.

That’s a lot of very good reasons to cut back on sugar, but are artificial sweeteners any better? Like sugar, artificial sweeteners are all highly processed substances. Even worse, they’re man-made, and man-made substances almost never end up being good for us, especially if we eat a lot of them. 

On the surface, non-caloric sweeteners might seem to be better. Of course, the biggest benefit is that you don’t ingest as many calories, and caloric reduction is the most popular weight loss theory of the day. Another benefit is taste. It’s a big leap to go from a diet that has hidden sweeteners in almost everything to a diet that has no sweetening agent whatsoever. And lastly, most non-caloric sweetening substances don’t raise blood sugar, and this advantage is definitely worth considering if you’re a type 2 diabetic or if you’re one of those people having a hard time losing weight.

That said, recent studies suggest that diet drinks and food products might not be producing the intended result. According to Consumer’s Research Magazine, “There is no clear-cut evidence that sugar substitutes are useful in weight reduction. On the contrary, there is some evidence that these substances may stimulate appetite.”

People who drink a lot of diet drinks, for example, are not losing weight or inches, and it’s been shown show that rats that are fed artificial sweeteners overeat and get fat. There’s also the fact that some of these substances have a long history of bad press from our very own FDA and other governments, as well as laundry lists of health problems empirically reported by concerned individuals. At this point in time, our government says artificial sweeteners are safe, but no guidelines are provided for limits on consumption.

There are four categories of alternative sweetening options available to you: artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, stevia (an herb with sweet leaves), and blends that are made with various combinations of all these options. Some blends even include regular table sugar. This article is focused exclusively on artificial sweeteners. The three most readily available, widely used artificial sweeteners in the U.S. are aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose. Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Aspartame (commercially sold as NutraSweet, Equal, Canderel)
Aspartame was discovered by accident in 1965 at G.D. Searle. In 1981 the FDA approved it as a table top sweetener. In 1983 it was approved for use in carbonated beverages, and in 1996 it was approved for use in foods and all other drinks. Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar, and is currently the most popular artificial sweetener in the U.S.

It has four calories per packet, and 24 packets equals one cup of sugar. Because aspartame loses sweetness when subjected to heat for long periods of time, it’s not a suitable choice for baking. If aspartame is used in stove-top cooking, add it in the last five minutes of cooking to maintain sweetness.

Aspartame is approved for use by the American Diabetes Association and other public health organizations that promote weight loss. There are also many other big organization endorsements and support statements for aspartame. At the same time, a small army of individuals continue to object to the controversial way in which aspartame got FDA approval, which came about when the Donald Rumsfeld, then the CEO of Searle, used his personal relationship with President Ronald Reagan to push it through.

Another more troubling and compelling issue regarding aspartame comes from individuals who claim to suffer serious neural health problems due to aspartame consumption. These reports include a lower threshold for seizures, increased incidents of brain tumors, greater prevalence of multiple sclerosis, numbness in limbs, and more. The alleged harm is due to the fact that methanol, one of the ingredients in aspartame, breaks down into formaldehyde. Consuming large amounts of methanol is thought to have a cumulative and toxic effect, especially for children.

A second health problem involves phenylalanine, another ingredient in aspartame, which is dangerous to the estimated 10 million people who have PKU or phenylketonuria. This is a genetic disorder where the enzyme needed to metabolize phenylalanine is missing. If you’re interested in learning more about individual health concerns about aspartame, check out Sweet Misery, a documentary on DVD by Cori Brackett.

Saccharin (commercially sold as Sweet N Low and Necta Sweet)
Saccharin was discovered by accident in 1879, and is the great grandmother of all artificial sweeteners. It didn’t become popular and widely used, however, until there was a sugar shortage brought on by WWI. Saccharin is currently the third most popular artificial sweetener in the U.S.

When it comes to health and safety regulation, saccharin has a long and confusing history, littered with flip-flops in FDA position. The FDA first began inspecting saccharin way back in 1907 due to concerns that it might be carcinogenic. Even President Teddy Even President Teddy Roosevelt, a diabetic and saccharin user, got into the saccharin debate. “Anybody who says saccharin is injurious to health,” he said, “is an idiot.”

More recently, in 1972 the FDA attempted to ban saccharin, but the ban was not successful. In 1977 Canadians claimed to conclusively determine that saccharin causes cancer in animals, and they banned it from their country. (This ban is still in effect.) In the same year the FDA required that all U.S.-based saccharin products carry this warning label: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”

Then in 2000 the U.S. National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences concluded that saccharin should be removed from the list of known or suspected human carcinogens. This time it was President Bill Clinton who was responsible for removal of the warning label, which was lifted as part of his massive regulation changes and pardons just before leaving office.

Saccharin is 200-700 times sweeter than sugar, but has a bitter aftertaste, which is why food manufacturers often use it in combination with other sweeteners. Saccharin has four calories per packet, and 12 packets equal one cup of sugar. It’s heat stable and can be used in cooking. It’s been shown to trigger an insulin response in rats, presumably from taste stimulation.

Sucralose (commercially sold as Splenda, Nuvella and store brands)
Sucralose was discovered in 1976 and is 600 times sweeter than sugar. It’s currently the second most popular artificial sweetener in the U.S., and is projected to overtake aspartame for the number one position. The FDA approved sucralose as a table top sweetener in 1998 and as a food additive in 1999. According to the National Cancer Institute, the FDA viewed more than one hundred safety studies which showed no evidence that sucralose causes cancer or poses a human health threat. Some experts claim it’s no more dangerous than table salt.

Sucralose is made by chlorinating sugar. Three hydrogen atoms are replaced with three chlorine atoms. This process removes the calories from sugar but maintains the taste. Maltodextrin, a bulking agent, is added to the product so that the volume exactly matches sugar. Most of what you see when you purchase sucralose is actually the maltodextrin filler, which is made from the partial hydrolysis of starchy vegetables or vegetable roots. Very little sucralose is needed because it’s so sweet and potent.

Each packet of sucralose has 3.31 calories, and one cup of sucralose is exactly equal to one cup of sugar. This makes it an easy and convenient type of product for home use. It’s also heat stable and can be used in every kind of cooking. Sucralose does not have an effect on glucose or insulin production.

Sucralose is definitely the least objectionable type of artificial sweetener. The biggest health safety concerns have to do with the fact that sucralose hasn’t been around for a long time, and the impact of heavy usage may take a while to reveal itself. Another issue with sucralose has to do with whether or not the chlorine is absorbed into the body. Predictably, the manufacturer claims that none is absorbed while other resources say that anywhere from 11 to 27 percent might be absorbed.

The bottom line: You have to decide for yourself what is or isn’t safe and how much of these substances you want to put in your mouth. Keep in mind that the approval process for artificial substances is highly influenced by research that’s financed by the corporations who advocate the substances.

In any case, your best health bet is to use any artificial sweetening product in moderation, which means limiting consumption to two servings per day. If you’re a low to moderate consumer of artificial sweeteners, it probably doesn’t matter what type of substance it is. If, on the other hand, you’re a heavy user, then sucralose is highly recommended.

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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.
  • I have done some research and reading on the subject of Aspartame, and my family and I have chosen to steer away from this artificial sweetener. I saw the comment regarding migraine headaches, I’ll have to look into that helpful bit of information. Thank you, have a great day.

  • Emm

    This is an excellent article! I thought you compared the three artificial sweetners really fairly and objectively. Perhaps you could compare some of the natural ones too – are some of them as dangerous as artifical ones?

  • John E. Garst, Ph.D. (Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Nutrition)


    Thanks for writing back.

    First, I really don’t care if people use aspartame, another artificial sweetener, or sugar. I have no financial interest in aspartame. My only interest is in the truth. First, my point is that the facts are clear—aspartame is perfectly safe used as directed. I have personally reviewed the published literature on aspartame and there is none that documents any harm from this substance that cannot arise from the issues I reported. All the relevant regulatory agencies agree on this point. Realize too that the vast majority of those many, many millions of aspartame users have no problems with it; I have used aspartame extensively for forty plus years and I almost never have headaches, for example.

    Second, the purpose of my writing was not to say such problems don’t exist, but rather to explain why some people experience problems using aspartame and more importantly to explain why those problems disappear when they stop using aspartame. The issue cannot be aspartame”it is never absorbed intact. Realize too that I agree with your point about headaches. I said so—“Aspartame is perfectly safe used as directed, but still some people may show varying degrees of sensitivity (headaches, etc).”

    I did say that underlying folate deficiency, folate polymorphisms (effectively causing folate deficiency) or hyperhomocysteinemia (most often but not always reduced by folate) are likely responsible for any sensitivity to aspartame, although there are also other related issues that could be involved. In fact folate deficiency is common. It is associated with many cancers(PDF). And most connections suggested between disease and aspartame are better explained by disease and folate issues. And I wasn’t blaming most patients, because from 20% to 40% of the population have genetic folate issues that they cannot control. But a goodly number also have a controllable folate deficiency. Again folate deficiency is widespread and that deficiency is a major cause of neural tube birth defects(PDF). Scientific study makes clear that major folate polymorphisms are directly connected to migraine headaches. Moreover, in those patients the headaches are prevented by folate supplements as expected.

    So overall my point is exactly what I reported before—aspartame is perfectly safe used as directed in healthy people –those people susceptible to any aspartame reaction are reacting to their own folate deficiency or other issues not to aspartame make them supersensitive. Most likely that is to the slight additions of formate that they simply cannot handle. That is not a real aspartame safety issue, but a personal issue.

    John E. Garst, Ph.D. (Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Nutrition)

  • Another note: in your rush to blame the patient, you say that those who are sensitive to aspartame must have some sort of allergy or folate issues. Why is it then that I can take, separately, the amino acids that are used to make aspartame and have no problem at all. Or why folic acid never has bothered me. Or why my son simply grew out of the headaches entirely with no change of diet. Your theory is totally flawed and you ought to read some of the newer studies on migraine disease that link it to small seizures that are sensitive to a myriad things.

  • Sorry, Dr. Garst, aspartame causes migraines. Every doctor who specializes in migraine treatment puts that at the top of his or her list of food additives to avoid. It certainly caused migraines for me and my son. (Topamax has controlled my migraines.)

    Stevia is the only safe alternative sweetener and I’m surprised you didn’t spend more time on it. Truvia and PureVia, which mix stevia with Eryrithritol (a fruit sugar) taste almost exactly like sugar, have no bad aftertaste and can be bought in handy packages. Pure stevia is a bit too strong for most people, and the Truvia compromise makes it easier to deal with.

    Hammer Nutrition, which is one of the leading sports nutrition companies in the U.S., has announced that stevia is the ONLY sweetener that it will allow in any of its products because it’s only one they deem safe.

    So you can listen to the doctor there, who I am sure is funded by the aspartame industry, or you can listen to a nutrition company which has no reason to take the side of a sweetener that is natural and not produced in a lab.

    If I don’t use sugar, I will only use stevia. And for me the case is closed.

  • John E. Garst, Ph.D. (Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Nutrition)

    There is NO scientific concern by FDA or other world’s regulatory agencies about aspartame. Studies to the contrary were poorly designed and open to serious criticism. But, aspartame-sensitive people may be innately susceptible to many disorders, including those you cite as proving a problem. Let me explain!

    Aspartame is degraded to the all-natural substances methanol, phenylalanine, and aspartic acid even before absorption. People with the genetic condition phenylketonuria are unable to tolerate the vital, essential amino acid phenylalanine and are warned to avoid it on the label.

    While methanol isn’t really very toxic, some people are uniquely sensitive to its toxic oxidation product formate. Formate removal is the real medical concern from methanol poisoning. However, low methanol and thus formate intake is vital. Formic acid is recycled by the folate-B12 vitamin systems to methyl groups that detoxify the real excitotoxin homocysteine (Wikipedia: homocysteine) or to methylene groups that convert uracil to thymine. Uracil incorporation into DNA in the absence of thymine causes unstable and breakable DNA and cancer. These folic acid transformations are absolutely vital to life and why folate-B12 are vitamins and why methanol at low doses, like those found in fruit juices or aspartame, is also vital.

    Aspartame is perfectly safe used as directed, but still some people may show varying degrees of sensitivity (headaches, etc). These arise not from aspartame, but from the user’s underlying biochemistry. Some are ultrasensitive (allergic) to formate (perhaps from childhood insect stings). But most sensitive people are deficient in folic acid (a vitamin), have genetic folate abnormalities (called polymorphisms; Wikipedia: Methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase), or have high blood homocysteine (Wikipedia: homocysteine). The latter may be the most potent excitotoxin and many people have high blood homocysteine most frequently because of folate issues. Other factors include ethanol (which strongly inhibits folate raising formate concentrations, fetal alcohol syndrome, etc.) and antiepileptic drugs. ALL aspartame “symptoms” are seen as a direct consequence of underlying personal issues residing in formate sensitivity, whether through allergy, folate or other issues. None have anything to do with aspartame safety. But this formate “straw that broke the camels back” issue is why aspartame-associated symptoms disappear after ceasing use. The bigger question is whether people who show aspartame sensitivity are fundamentally at risk from many folate-associated diseases? That includes MS, lupus, diabetes, many cancers (brain and breast cancer) and others.

    John E. Garst, Ph.D. (Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Nutrition)