The American Heart Association and American Diabetes have given a cautious nod to the use of artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, conditions that are all risk factors for heart disease. While there is nothing magical about artificial sweeteners, their use in place of sucrose, or white table sugar, can help reduce added sugars in the diet, lowering the number of overall calories consumed. Reducing calories leads to healthier body weight, which lowers the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.
But these aren’t the only reasons someone might need to use a non-nutritive sweetener. For those suffering from congenital sucrase-isomaltase deficiency (CSID), also known as sucrose intolerance, artificial sweeteners are the only safe option for sweetening food and drinks. CSID is a condition in which individuals are unable to digest sucrose (common, white table sugar). Their bodies lack an important enzyme that allows their digestive system to break down sucrose.
Currently, six artificial sweeteners are approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA): saccharin, aspartame, neotame, sucralose, advantame, and acesulfame potassium. The agency has also approved one natural, low-calorie sweetener, stevia. Is one better than the other? Do they behave differently in the body? Let’s take a look at each one and see what they’re all about.
Saccharin brand names include Sweet and Low, Sweet Twin, Sweet’N Low, and Necta Sweet. It is 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose), and it does not contain any calories. Saccharin is considered “safe” by the FDA. In the past, it was believed that its use could lead to cancer, but that evidence was based on tests performed in rats and found to have no bearing on human consumption. Furthermore, saccharin is not metabolized by the body, so it does not affect the body or change blood-sugar levels.
Aspartame brand names include Nutrasweet, Equal, and Sugar Twin. It does contain calories and is about 200 times sweeter than sucrose. As one of the most popular sweeteners used nationwide, it does come with a long list of public concerns and criticisms. However, scientific research hasn’t shown any ongoing proof of harm. Aspartame is a combination of aspartic acid and phenylalanine.
Both of these ingredients are naturally occurring amino acids. Aspartic acid is produced by your body, and phenylalanine is an essential amino acid that you get from food. The primary concern about aspartame consumption is for those individuals suffering from a condition called phenylketonuria (PKU), which is an inability to process phenylalanine. Aspartame is highly toxic for these individuals and should be avoided.
Neotame is sold under the brand name Newtame and is approximately 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sucrose. It is a derivative of aspartame and also contains phenylalanine, so it is toxic for those suffering from PKU and should be avoided. It remains stable at high temperatures, so it is often used in baked goods.
Sucralose is sold under the brand name Splenda and is about 600 times sweeter than sugar. While the process to make sucralose begins with sucrose, the final product is quite different. The body does not break down sucralose into calories for energy. Yet, both sugar and sucralose activate the same taste buds on your tongue.
Most of the sucralose people consume is not absorbed and passes through the body. The little that is absorbed is excreted in the urine and doesn’t accumulate in the body. Based on its strong safety background, experts, researchers, and government bodies agree that people can consume a variety of foods and beverages sweetened with sucralose on a daily basis without concern.
Advantame is a general purpose, non-nutritive sweetener that is 20,000 times sweeter than sucrose. Advantame is not available for purchase by consumers and does not yet have a brand name. It is only available for commercial and food ingredient purposes. It is another derivative of aspartame.
Acesulfame potassium is non-nutritive sweetener and included in the ingredient list on a food label as acesulfame K, acesulfame potassium, or Ace-K. Acesulfame potassium is sold under the brand names Sunett and Sweet One. It is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar and has a somewhat bitter aftertaste. As a result of the aftertaste, it is generally combined with other sweeteners, like sucralose.
There is a bit of controversy over Ace-K and its safety. The Center for Science in the Public Interest feels that despite the shortcomings of early research, there’s a link between Ace-K and cancer. There’s also evidence that something called acetoacetamide (created in the body as it breaks Ace-K down) can lead to thyroid damage in lab animals.
Stevia is an herb that is native to Brazil and Paraguay. Brand names of this sweetener are Truvia and Stevia in the Raw. This highly processed sugar as it is used in the United States contains 0 calories and is 200 times sweeter than table sugar, so less is needed when it is used in baking or sweetening your coffee.
The process of extracting the sweetener from the leaves begins by drying the leaves and then steeping them in hot water. High-purity, stevia-leaf extracts are required to meet U.S. safety standards for foods and beverage use. Research shows that there is no accumulation of stevia in the body.
Risks are generally associated with using any processed or artificial food or beverage. But sometimes, the rewards outweigh the consequences. For individuals needing to remove sugar from their diets due to obesity or intolerance, artificial sweeteners offer an alternative when something sweet to eat is desired.