Myth Buster #3 – Artificial Sweeteners

by Chelsey Lindahl on April 25, 2011

Myth Buster Month nears the final curtain with its second to last topic:  Artificial Sweeteners.  Have you ever wondered if these guilt and sugar-free flavor enhancers are as bad or good as people say?  And what really is the difference between Stevia, Splenda, and Equal?  Well, what would I be if not here to inform you?!

It goes without saying (but some people still need to be told) that artificial sweeteners are non-sugar alternatives, or sugar substitutes.  They are  synthesized (or in rare cases naturally occurring, e.g. Stevia) forms of sugar that offer little to no calories to the body and do not cause a spike in blood sugar.  Artificial sweeteners are also many times sweeter than natural sugar, making them a popular choice in processed foods, because less is needed.

Consuming artificial sweeteners is better for our teeth and our waistlines.  And, for people with diabetes or high blood sugar, they are a one-way ticket to candy land.  However, although regulated by the FDA, the jury is still out on whether these sugar substitutes are safe.

Let’s take a look at the three most popular artificial sweeteners: aspartame, sucralose, and stevia.

Aspartame

Aspartame is the artificial sweetener found in Equal and NutraSweet.  It is synthesized (man-made) from amino acids and up to 200 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar).   Looking beyond the little blue packets gracing every roadside restaurant across the country, aspartame is also found in a plethora of processed products including diet soda, pharmaceuticals and more.

There are several myths disputing the safety of aspartame.  Many people believe that the consumption of aspartame is infinitely unsafe and can lead to chronic health problems such as cancer, seizures, and loss of vision.  But is there any truth to these claims?  Well yes, there just may be.

In many clinical studies aspartame has shown to be dangerous.  Resent data has even gone so far as to label the substance a confirmed carcinogen after cancer presented in animals during lab testing.  The FDA responded to these claims by stating that the pathological effects seen in the study were random and not related to the use of aspartame.  In defense of the FDA, other studies show that there is no linkage between aspartame and cancer or seizures.

At this time, we do not have enough information to say whether aspartame is 100% good or bad.  In a nation of declining health, there really are many factors which could be at play in any study.  However, from my perspective, I do not want to consume something that may or may not be a carcinogen or may or may not cause seizures. Aspartame is in so many foods it would be challenging to avoid them all, but I suggest making your best effort.  There is no need for aspartame in our food and we would do just fine without it (yes, this hold true for diabetics as well, there are better alternatives out there).

One last piece to note, in scientific studies the amount of aspartame used in each exposure is higher than what we would likely consume in real life.  If you are having one diet soda per day, chances are you’re in the safe zone.  However, the real fear is the giant pool of unknown and possibly murky waters still left to tread on this debate.

Myth TBD – Aspartame *may* be harmful to our health.  Consume cautiously.

Sucralose

Can you name the brand product?  You got it, it is Splenda! (I know the picture gave it away.) Those glorious little yellow packets add a ray of sunshine to sugar-free foods everywhere.  Splenda is a synthesized and calorie free product, but is it safe?  Well, once again we’re really not sure.  Many studies say yes, many say no.  The side affect most frequently connected with sucralose is gastrointestinal distress, so consume with caution.  I won’t go through the same rigmarole I touted off for aspartame, but the information is mostly the same.  Chances are that sucralose is not as potentially harmful as aspartame, but only time and further research will tell.

 

Myth TBD – Consume cautiously.

Stevia

And then there was Stevia. Does the name sound familiar?  Stevia is all the rage now, offering a natural alternative to artificial sweeteners.  Yes, that’s right, I said “natural”.  Stevia comes from the plant, stevia rebaudiana.  Leaves from the plant are dried and the sugar (Stevia) is extracted and purified in much the same way sucrose (table sugar) is made.

Although it is relatively new to the US, Stevia has been used in Japan since the 1970s.  It is now used all around the world.  No literature to date indicates that Stevia may have a harmful effect on health.  However, as it is relatively new product, especially in the US, further research is still needed.  There are some claims that consuming Stevia may actually help to reduce blood sugar; however, that has yet to be confirmed or denied.

Stevia is a zero-calorie sweetener and it is an excellent choice for anyone looking to reduce their sugar intake.  Several registered dietitians and diabetes educators I know swear by this product; it comes highly recommended.   If you are using artificial sweeteners, especially on a regular basis, I suggest giving Stevia a try.

Myth Busted – Consume 100% Stevia products freely in moderation.

Is real sugar all that bad?

Personally, I am a believer in real food.  I would rather consume less of something real and savor it, then consume a lot of something fake. Generally speaking, it is also better for our bodies.  That being said, my preference when it comes to artificial sweeteners vs. real sugar, is to consume real sugar in moderation.  That is what I recommend to others as well.  In cases when artificial sweeteners are desired, I highly recommend using Stevia.

What’s next?

Later this week keep your eye out for the final installment of Myth Busters on popular “superfoods”.  Also, if you haven’t yet, check out the first two Myth Buster Posts that are causing a buzz: High-Fructose Corn Syrup & Gluten-Free and hCG Diets.

References:

  • Bouchez, C. WebMD: Dietitians Say Splenda is Not the Same as Sugar. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20050216/dietitians-say-splenda-not-same-as-sugar.
  • Cruzan, G. Assessment of the cancer potential of methanol. Retrieved from http://hero.epa.gov/index.cfm?heroid=&action=search.do&sort=year&all=&exact=&any=&singleyear=&startyear=&endyear=&journal=&author=&allreftypes=yes&usage_id=158&submit=Search.
  • FDA.  FDA Statement on European Aspartame Study. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodIngredientsPackaging/FoodAdditives/ucm208580.htm.
  • Harvard Health Publications. Stevia – The Zero-Calorie Sweetener. Retrieved from http://www.bing.com/health/article/harvard-1000244165/Stevia-The-ZeroCalorie-AllNatural-Sweetener?q=stevia.
  • Wikpedia. Artificial Sweeteners.  Retrieved from http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_sweetener.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Janine April 25, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Love it!! Thank you for the information! They each have been very educational, but I was waiting for this one!! Great job!!

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Janine April 25, 2011 at 11:05 pm

By the way, I’ve seen items in the store under the name of Stevia or they may be called something else but have Stevia on the package. I think that some say raw sugar, they may be either brown or white in color, etc. Are these all the same thing? I spent quite a bit of time reading their packages a few weeks ago and finally decided to wait for your myth buster to see what was what?

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Chelsey Lindahl April 25, 2011 at 11:18 pm

Thanks for your comment! Great question — There are three types of Stevia available to consumers PureVia, Truvia, and SweetLeaf. Each has a slightly different make-up, but all three contain only natural and safe (non-carcinogenic) ingredients. Truly, there isn’t much a difference between them that I can find. I would buy whichever is the most cost effective. If they were all the same, I recommend Truvia.

As for brown vs. white… Stevia in the raw has a very strong odor and flavor; it must go through a purification process to be consumed. I would be shocked to find a Stevia in the raw product, but if you come across one please let me know!

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Janine April 25, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Thank you for the clarification. Now I know which to go for. I’ll check what the brown was called that I saw. I thought it was this stuff, but maybe it wasn’t. Thank you again for the great information!!

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Sara September 28, 2011 at 6:17 am

Great article. I stumbled upon your blog through the butterfly award on Eat Yourself Skinny. I have found that Splenda makes me bloated. TMI! I have read articles that suggested this is common. I definitely try to limit my sweetener to stevia and real sugar. I personally like the brand, Stevia In The Raw. I don’t think it is necessarily raw, though. It is still in a powdered form and the ingredients list says: dextrose, stevia extract (rebiana). I think they just call it “In the Raw” out of branding, because they started with Sugar In The Raw. I drink the occasional Fresca, but definitely not everyday. I have been reading that it is just a matter of time before Coke and Pepsi launch some sodas with stevia in them. That will be a nice occasional treat.

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Chelsey Lindahl September 28, 2011 at 6:23 am

Hi Sara! Glad you like CWYMO! Thanks for checking it out! Splenda is known to cause GI distress for lot’s of folks so I am not surprised to hear that at all! I do the same as you when it comes to sweeteners. Occasionally I have sugar, but mostly just Stevia. I do use honey quite frequently though too! With Stevia I recently learned (and need to do a blog post about this) that you want to look for the Sweet Leaf Stevia, which is completely free of sugars and alcohols (i.e. “dextrose”). I had never used this form prior to learning this, but I have since tried it and it is very good!

Thanks for stopping by!!!

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Seppo September 22, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Hi Chelsey,

Just stumbled on your blog. Nice to see objective writing about controveresial topic. Getting tired of all the fear-mongering in the natural health websites :)

Anyway, I seriously doubt aspartame is dangerous. All the amino acids in it are founds in abundant quantities in normal foods also. And they are metabolized very quickly. Not impossible, but kinda hard to imagine it would cause significant health problems.

I can say though that it’s not that great for weight loss. Anecdotally I’ve found that it keeps me hooked to sweet taste. So while it doesn’t contain any calories, it does make breaking sugar addiction harder.

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Chelsey Lindahl October 16, 2012 at 9:36 pm

Hi Seppo,

Thanks for your kind comments – I love getting feedback from other bloggers! Going to be working on some new content soon, so I hope you come back!

You are absolutely correct about the amino acids found in aspartame, they are simply aspartic acid and phenylalanine – not at all hazadarous to health (unless of course you have PKU). However, the dangerous position is the methyl ester bond which releases methanol upon hydrolysis. This methanol can enter the brain cause damage to myelin, as once in the brain it becomes formic acid (formaldehyde) or in simple translation a carcinogen. It is believed that exposure in the body is cumulative. Luckily there are so many other options now, including my personal recommendation Stevia, so avoiding aspartame can actually easily be done when following a healthy eating plan. Which after glancing at your blog, I can tell you do! :)

Thanks again,

Chelsey

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Seppo October 16, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Thanks for your reply Chelsey.

I don’t have sufficient background in biochemistry or medicine to form a really informed opinion about this, so I’m open to suggestions and corrections.

I did a quick search on the methanol-aspartame issue. One of the best sources I found was this comprehensive safety review of aspartame: dieteticai.ufba.br/Temas/ACUCARES/ASPARTAME.pdf

I have to admit that the lead authors of this review worked for NutraSweet. That could bias the findings, but there were also plenty of what looked like independent authors on this.

Anyway, the paper notes that even after abuse-doses of aspartame there was no detectable levels of methanol, formaldehyde or formate in the blood. Just as is the case after consuming fruits of fruit juices, other sources of methanol and formaldehyde. This would certainly suggest no real danger from aspartame.

They also talk about accumulation of formaldehyde or its metabolites into tissues. This is what they say:

An alternative explanation for tissue incorporation of label from [14C]aspartame as described by Trocho et al. (1998) would be incorporation into amino acids and nucleotides via one-carbon moieties from the folatedependent metabolism of formate. The lack of formaldehyde accumulation at very high doses of methanol question considerably the conclusion that formaldehyde adducts are forming from low doses of methanol (derived from high doses aspartame). Thus, Tephly (1999) concluded, “the normal flux of one-carbon moieties whether derived from pectin, aspartame, or fruit juices is a physiologic phenomenon and not a toxic event.”

Unfortunately I lack the background to really understand this. Perhaps you can comment further?

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Chelsey Lindahl October 17, 2012 at 10:18 pm

Hi Seppo,

You brought up a fantastic point about bias in research. Unfortunately, I generally find that for the most suspicious ingredients or the biggest concerns, there is limited unbiased research. Since research is very costly, it is typically funded by big-food and most generally in cases when they want to prove a point that will sway things in their favor. I wrote this myth busters post several years back, so I don’t have those references offhand anymore, however, I will dig a little and see if I can find them for you in the next week or so (just didn’t have time tonight, but wanted to respond). Generally what I tell my patients/clients is if the safety of a food product is questionable, and the alternative to no health consequences could be especially harmful then avoid that substance (especially when it can easily be avoided). The dangers far out weigh the risk and as I stated briefly, with such limited unbiased research out there as it pertains to the food industry and nutritional science, it is better to play it safe. I think that there is a lot that we don’t know about the long term effects of chemical substances in foods. Even looking at public health trends and current stats – despite an increase in health eating and physical activity the past few years obesity and chronic disease continues to rise, so what is really the culprit? There is a growing group of individuals and science that believe it may be related to what we’re eating, how’s it processed, and food additives. I hope that in the next 10-20 years research can begins to shed a little more light on this.

I hope this helps a little. You are very right to questions things as it regards to the food industry and chemicals in food. You can’t be too cautious. I’ll see what articles I can drum up for you and send them your way. My work load is really crazy the next few days so be patient with me, but I’ll do my best.

Thanks!

Chelsey

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Seppo October 20, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Thanks for your reply Chelsey,

No need to put too much effort into finding those references. This is not such an important matter to me. And I more or less agree with you on it being a good idea to avoid artificial sweeteners. Not necessarily because they are dangerous but more because they keep you hooked to sweet taste that then increases sugar consumption.

As to bias in research, we have to keep in mind it cuts both ways. There’s no doubt anymore that company sponsored research on drugs yields more positive results than government funded research. It’s probably the same with research that’s funded by food companies.

That said, money is not the only thing that creates bias. Lot of ideologically slanted organizations and publications (such as organic lobbies and many alt-med journals) produce and publish equally biased and bad research. I’ve lost count on how many poorly done homeopathy studies I’ve seen, not to mention the recent, French GM rat study that’s been very harshly criticized by science bloggers.

It’s quite frustrating since we are dealing with issues that are really important for humanity. We don’t really have much time to waste on ideologically-fueled shouting matches. But alas, it’s part of being human that we get attached to our beliefs and tend to defend them at all costs. Just makes it harder to sort out the truth :)

John January 21, 2013 at 7:20 pm

Throwing my .02 in. While it’s far from scientific, my personal experiences with aspartame/phenylalanine might help someone stay further from their seizure threshold. After consuming some equal on breakfast cereal, (far too much I might add) I experienced a grand-mal seizure that cost me my front teeth, and bought me 52 stitches in my upper lip. I was 19 and had never had a seizure before. I had several seizures over the next few years before putting 1 and 1 together. Even within the past few years, I noticed that I had several auras after consuming diet soda. I am 39 now, and have eliminated the sweeteners from my diet and the seizures from my life.
I’ve read the studies and I’m not really surprised by the findings. I believe that I and many others have a lower threshold that makes us susceptible to seizures. Phenylalanine irritates/triggers that neuron who wrecks my day. Do I have a study to prove it? No. But I have 2 decades of poorly documented and controlled research, performed on an unwilling and unwitting subject to allow me to feel confident in telling others to stay away from phenylalanine/aspartame.
Thanks for having this discussion.

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Chelsey Lindahl January 21, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Hi John,

Thank you for your comment and for sharing your story. That is a quite a testimony; I am really glad you were able to note the source/trigger point and I can sympathize with how difficult it must be to avoid in your diet (all the way to chewing gum at times). Unfortunately, as I stated in early comments, research around aspartame is lacking – however, I have yet to meet someone who eliminated them without positive results (most commonly reduced headaches). With better alternatives out there, such as xylitol or pure stevia, I don’t understand why these products are so heavily utilized (aside from being cheap).

Thanks again for your comment!

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John January 21, 2013 at 8:15 pm

To be honest Chelsey, the final solution for me regarding sugar/sweeteners in my diet was to avoid them altogether. I have a lovely addiction to sugar, (that’s another one of my blogs) and anything that mimics sugar just exasperates my problem. My rule? If nature made it sweet, then it flies. Other than that, I abstain. Too bad chocolate bar trees never materialized.

Thanks again for such a great blog. I look forward to following it.

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