Sweeteners: Artificial Varieties

by in Food News & Trends, February 6, 2009

Everyone knows these little pastel packets you find at restaurants and coffee shops — the artificial or no-calorie sweeteners. We see descriptions like “substitute,” “natural” and “made from sugar” attached to these food additives, but what does it all mean? There is more to these “sweets” than meets the eye.

The Backstory
None of these products have been on the market for more than 50 years or so, which may not be long enough to grasp how they affect the body in the long run. Making sense of all the research is tricky to say the least. Because these products are so prevalent — both as standalone products and add-ins to packaged foods — there may be some pressure on researchers and government agencies to keep them around. This is a good reason to proceed with caution.

Though they come from different sources, all artificial sweeteners are subjected to some type of chemical treatment in order to remove calories or enhance flavor.

Popular Types of Sweeteners
Saccharin (a.k.a. Sweet N’ Low) is the grandfather of artificial sweeteners. It is 350 times sweeter than sugar, and research has linked excessive consumption to certain types of cancer in lab animals. These findings led the FDA to consider banning its use more than 30 years ago. That didn’t happen, but there are many agencies that advise avoiding saccharin if you can.

Aspartame (a.k.a. Equal or NutraSweet) was the next sweetener on the scene. Only 200 times sweeter than sugar, it is commonly found in beverages, gelatin desserts and frozen desserts. The research on this product is spotty, but there are some links to cancer. The best advice is to avoid long-term consumption. Children should also avoid eating lots of aspartame-containing foods.

Sucralose (a.k.a. Splenda) may be your best bet since there does not seem to be mountains of evidence advising against it. Typically found in baked goods, frozen treats and beverages, it is popular because “it is made from sugar” (according to advertisements). Yes, it is made from sugar — sugar rinsed with chlorine! Though it does have the least amount of negative research, it has only been approved for use in the U.S. since 1998.

New on the Scene
Even newer than Splenda is Stevia (a.k.a., Truvia or Purevia). About 100 times sweeter than sugar, Stevia was previously sold as a “dietary supplement” until recent FDA approval. We’ll probably see Stevia added to most food you can shake a sugar bowl at (and this has some food industry watchdog groups freaking out). Stevia is derived from a plant, but that doesn’t guarantee its safety. There is some research that says it’s safe and others than support having caution; until more research is done, the jury is still out. (Read more about the Stevia controversy.)

The Breakdown
Pros: These products offer a calorie-free alternative to sugar, which can be useful for diabetics or those trying to cut out calories.

Cons: None of these sweeteners are straight from mother nature. Many contain chemicals and there just isn’t enough research to date to verify that they can be consumed with reckless abandon. Check labels to know exactly which type you are eating. They are not only found in “sugar free” foods. “Diet” and “light” versions of foods and beverages often contain a combination of sugar and artificial sweeteners to help keep calories low.

The Bottom Line
Using small amounts of artificial sweeteners is most likely safe, but since these items do contain potentially harmful chemicals, it’s best to consume in strict moderation. We at Healthy Eats just avoid them altogether.

Learn more about these and other food additives >>

What do you think of artificial sweeteners?

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