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.