What everyone should know about artificial sweeteners

Millions of people trying to lose weight, combat obesity, deal with diabetes or metabolic syndrome, rely on artificial sweeteners to replace the sugar they normally consume.

While the FDA gives the head-nod for consumers to use some of these products, other organizations such as the American Heart Association advise consumers proceed with caution.

The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners and one low-calorie sweetener as safe for consumer use. The artificial sweeteners are neotame, saccharin, sucralose, aspartame and acesulfame. The approved low-calorie sweetener is stevia. Even though they are approved for use, they should be used sparingly.

The average 12-ounce can of soda contains 150 calories, nearly all of which are derived from the soda’s eight teaspoons of sugar. When you look at a can of diet soda sweetened with artificial sweetener, however, you’ll see zero-calories.

Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity and weight loss specialist at Harvard Boston Children’s Hospital, shares two concerns about those relying on artificial sweeteners. The first concern, he explains, is consumers replacing those ‘saved calories’ via other avenues. “I’m drinking diet soda, so it’s okay to have cake.”

He explains his second concern is that “non-nutritive sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. A miniscule amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of sugar, without comparable calories. Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes.”

He explains his concern is people who rely on these types of sweeteners may find other less-intense sugary foods, such as fruit, less appealing and eventually find non-sweet foods such as vegetables, completely unappealing.

Other concerns doctors share about the use of artificial sweeteners is its ability to trick people into no longer associating sweet with calories. Research shows that over time, people who use these sugar alternatives tend to choose sweet food over nutritious food options, which in turn, causes them to gain weight.

A San Antonio Heart Study showed participants who consumed more than 21 diet sodas per week were two times as likely to become obese than those who didn’t drink diet soda. Other studies show that artificial sweeteners have the potential to become addictive.

Artificial sweeteners are used in numerous products that range from sodas to fruit juice, chewing gum, jams and jellies, candy, yogurt, puddings, powdered drink mixes, canned food, ice cream and even in baked goods and are generally labeled as diet or sugar-free, however, the interpretation for what these terms actually mean is left up to the consumer.

While some manufacturers label their sweeteners as natural, even though the sweetener is a refined or processed product — stevia is an example — other manufacturers using artificial sweeteners use products that are derived from natural sugar sources — sucralose is an example. Regardless, all artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes.

Pros of using artificial sweeteners

  • These sugar substitutes do not contribute to tooth decay.
  • Non-nutritive sweeteners — virtually no calories — can help with weight control.
  • Due to their lack of carbohydrates, they do not tend to raise blood sugar levels.

Cons of using artificial sweeteners

  • A 36 percent greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome.
  • Chance of obesity or weight gain.
  • Possible addiction.
  • A 67 percent risk increase in developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Saccharin has been linked to bladder cancer, but newer studies have this warning dropped.

While the National Cancer Institute admits there is no sound proof that artificial sweeteners cause health problems when used in limited quantities, the FDA generally declares these sugar substitutes as GRAS — generally recognized as safe.

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