Sweeteners: Artificial Varieties

by in Food News, 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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Comments (101)

  1. Marc says:

    I found this link from the Food Network website. I used to use Sugar years ago, switched to the Pink stuff, then the Blue stuff, then the Yellow stuff, now I am on the Green stuff. But after reading all these posts, I think I am giving up sweeteners all together. I do use honey in my tea, but not sure how it would taste in coffee. Thank you for all the good information.

  2. Anita Kline says:

    I have been a diabetic for a little over 5 years now and I have something to say about this. While it may be true that artificial sweetners MAY have side affects, for diabetics, THERE ARE NO OTHER CHOICES. I have found that even natural sugars will cause my blood sugar to jump. Milk sugars are the worst for me. I even have trouble with real cheeses and try to avoid them. It is true that most natural sugars are better for you, but for diabetics, sugar is sugar. Which would you prefer? Headaches or dizzy spells? Fatigue or coma? Colon problems or death? My choice is clear.
    Thank you for listening.

    • Sara says:

      Agave Nectar is an alternative to sugar – it is a low glycemic food.

      • brig says:

        Perhaps you should check out Agave Nectar. Much of it has been recalled and it has been reclassified. Comments on it are that the glycemic index assigned to it was far less than its actual index.

    • Mark says:

      I saw this blog by chance and reading through found your note. I am also diabetic,Type 1 so know exactly what you are writing about. Sugar is everywhere. I especially hate the hidden sugars which I learned to look for .. even stevia is fructose. I did find a product recently called Advantage from an online company called The Great Nutrition Company. It tastes good and is not metabolised at all and its not sugar at all. I use it for everything. The safety reports on it are pretty convincing that it is the safest alternative and in any case as you rightly say, as diabetics we are more at risk from all the rest. but I am so happy to be using this new product.

    • Elaine says:

      Drink WATER!

  3. Stacy says:

    If you get stomach cramps and/or constipation – artificial sweeteners may be to blame!

    Read labels – artificial sweeteners are in EVERYTHING! Kraft puts them in every single South Beach diet product (pizza, tortillas, etc). They are in almost all flavored waters. Light Yogurt uses them. Many breads put them in even if they aren't considered diet. Many products put in plain sugar AND artificial sweeteners to lower the calories per serving. It is very frustrating. I am for a change to food labeling rules to force declaration of "Artificial Sweeteners" in common English – especially since there are so many and new ones under development.

    Try True Lime or True Lemon if you want flavored water without any sweetener. It gives a slight citrus taste – very yummy!

  4. J says:

    When stevia has an aftertaste, it means you used too much. To sweeten an entire pitcher of iced tea you should be using less than a teaspoon. For a cup of tea I literally just sprinkle a tiny bit in and it's perfect! Also, you can grow it in your herb garden, dry the leaves, and just use those so it doesn't have to be processed at all! I love honey, agave, turbinado sugar, and pure cane sugar too, but I do use stevia in certain kinds of tea. I'm repulsed by the taste of artificial sweeteners — they really just taste like chemicals to me. So if I accidentally have something containing them I just spit it out and go on my merry way :) (People think I'm weird because they can't tell the difference as easily as I can… but I think they're weird because they think that garbage tastes good, so I guess it evens out!)

  5. Suzanne says:

    I would rather use/consume real sugar. My body has a problem with artificial sweetners (with the exception of Sweet ‘n Low). Everytime I consume artificial sweetners I get a headache. I know that I’m not the only one with this problem. It really bothers me that almost all chewing gum company has started putting artificial sweetners in their products.

    I have been overweight most of my life. I’ve been fortunate not to be diabetic. Every “diet” product has artifical sweetners in them which makes it hard for me to cut back on my calorie intake.

  6. josephine jordan says:

    Thank You very much for all the information and comments reguarding sugar and sugar substitutes. I do have one question: how much honey is safe to eat? jJ

  7. Lil says:

    why not just go back to sugar, just have the food manufacturers use unrefined sugar (which i think is healthier but maybe you guys can shed light on this too) in their foods? all the sugar free stuff is just deluding us into thinking we are eating healthier, more desirable food.

    • lurl says:

      Since when is sugar considered healthy? I would be go differ. As to deluding ourselves into thinking we are eating healthier when using substitutes…since we have to go out of our way to buy them, use them etc., I don't think we are deluding ourselves in any way at all.
      I prefer the tastes of the substitutes to sugar or anykind.

  8. B says:

    I too have an issue with all artificial sweeteners to include more than the ingredients listed above. It is located in many non food products… OTC medicines, toothpastes, chapsticks, mouthwash etc. I have to read ingredients lists because if I get into a minute amount (Idon’t even have to swallow it)… I have joint pain, migraines, swollen glands, swellings, vommitting, IBS symptoms mouth blishters and more… Here is a list of other names it can come under:
    Polysorbate 60, Polysorbate 80, polysorbate 20, polysorbate 100, potassium sorbate, Aspartame, Neotame, sorbitol, splenda, acesulfame k, sucralose, saccharin, rebiana, cyclamate, sorbitan monostearate, mannitol, phenylalanine

  9. Lisa says:

    Why are people so afraid of Stevia when it has no reports of toxicity and has been used for over 500 years that we know of? Japan has been using it for 30 years with no side effects. I like the flavored Sweetleaf stevia drops. Since I gave up artificial sweeteners, I swear I’m a happier person. My daughter complains about all her teachers being crabby and I told her it’s all the diet soda they guzzle everyday.

  10. Maria Minno says:

    Don't eat processed foods. Don't eat sugar, artificial sweeteners, xylitol, or HFCS, they are all bad. Eat a high fat diet (healthy animal fats and coconut oil) and fermented foods that help you lose weight, support a friendly gut flora, and get rid of that candida that makes you want sweets and carbs so much. Aspartame and MSG cause damage to the hypothalamus that kills your ability to feel satisfied. Not only does it cause obesity, but it causes depression, mental disorders, and cancer. My mother in law thought she was fine using aspartame for years, too, but she died of a very fast-growing brain tumor in a matter of a few weeks.

    • lurl says:

      Please post your citations on the medical research that has provided you with this information.
      Peer reviewed please.

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