The Real Dilemmas

Paradise or poison? Opinions about artificial sweeteners tend to sway between these two extremes. Many people are concerned about potentially undiscovered health problems that could be revealed in longer term studies.  But for people who need to limit carbohydrates, whether because of diabetes or dieting, artificial sweeteners can add sweet flexibility to an otherwise limited meal plan. Let's take a look at the three most popular artificial sweeteners - saccharin (Sweet n' Low), aspartame (Equal), and sucralose (Splenda). All three are FDA-approved.

Saccharin   Remember Tab? That fab pink and white can was hailed as a godsend by many dieting women in the 60s and 70s. The popular soda contained saccharin, which had actually been around for decades. But in 1977, rat studies suggested that saccharin could increase the risk of bladder cancer. The problem was that the rats were given an amount of saccharin that in humans would equal hundreds of cans of diet soda per day over an entire lifetime. And while a large human study did not show an overall increased risk of cancer in humans, there is a slightly higher risk of bladder cancer in heavy smokers who use saccharin.

Acceptable Daily Intake: 5 milligrams for each kilogram of body weight. Divide your weight by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms. So for a 150-pound person, 340 milligrams of saccharin a day would be in the safe range. One packet of Sweet n' Low contains 36 milligrams of saccharin.

Aspartame  Aspartame (also known as Equal) is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners, adding sweetness to diet sodas, desserts, cereals, and many other foods and beverages. While hundreds of studies support the safety of aspartame, one new animal study questions the long-held view that aspartame does not cause cancer. The new study was done on rats over their entire lifetime, unlike past studies that ended earlier. The acceptable daily intake of aspartame is 50 mg/kg of body weight per day; this new study suggests that this number may be too high and should be more in the area of 20 mg/kg of body weight.

Acceptable Daily Intake: 50 milligrams for each kilogram of body weight. For a 150-pound person, 3,409 milligrams a day would be safe. A packet of Equal contains 37 milligrams of aspartame. A 12-ounce can of diet soda contains around 200 milligrams of aspartame.

Sucralose   The newest artificial sweetener on the scene is sucralose, popularly known as Splenda. Splenda is actually made from sugar - it's just altered so the majority of it passes through the body instead of being digested and used for energy or stored. (approximately 15 percent is absorbed by the body). To make it virtually non-caloric the makers replace some of the naturally occurring "hydroxyl" groups on the sugar molecule with chlorine atoms. While that may sound toxic, it's not. Many of the foods we eat actually contain chlorine, and the amount in Splenda does not add very much chlorine into the typical diet. Some controversy surrounded Splenda when the makers promoted it as "natural" when in reality, Splenda does not exist in nature.

Acceptable Daily Intake: 5 milligrams for each kilogram of body weight. For a 150-pound person, 340 milligrams a day would be safe. A packet of Splenda contains 12 milligrams of sucralose.

Some Guidelines for Safe Artificial Sweetener Use

  • Mix it up. You can lower any potential risks by not heavily using any one artificial sweetener. For instance, use a packet of Sweet n' Low in your tea but drink a diet soda with Nutra Sweet or Splenda.  I really feel this is a reasonable piece of advice - we can't wait for a study for everything out there before giving advice. The ADA even talks about using artificial sweeteners in combinations to provide greater sweetness.
  • Don't overdo it. Read labels to find out if your yogurt, juices, flavored bottled puddings, or other foods contain unexpected artificial sweeteners.
  • Sugar is not evil. As long as sugar is not replacing healthier foods in your meal plan and it's not part of a weight problem, sugar in moderation is not unhealthy. One teaspoon of sugar has 16 calories, so one or two teaspoons in your tea or coffee is unlikely to cause any health problems. Even people with diabetes can use sugar if they budget it into their meal plan.