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Artificial Sweeteners

Published on July 7, 2015, by in Dietitian.

Artificial sweeteners are a low calorie alternative to other sweeteners such as sugar, honey or agave. There are currently seven artificial sweeteners that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These include stevia, aspartame, acesulfame K, neotame, saccharin, sucralose and luo han guo fruit extract. Artificial sweeteners actually come from both natural and artificial sources. You may know them as the “fake” sugar packets you add to foods and beverages. You can also find them in products you may already buy like diet soda or other beverages,sugar free coffee creamers, sugar free candy, xylitolgums, jam and cereal, just to name a few.

How are artificial sweeteners different than sugar?

Sugar is digested and then absorbed and used by our bodies for energy. This energy from sugar is in the form of simple carbohydrates and calories. Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar. Since they are so intensely sweet you need much less of them to get that sweet taste which results in less calories consumed. Food companies can legally state that their product is calorie free if a single serving contains 5 calories or less. Artificial sweeteners were created as a way to still have a sweet taste, without the added calories. People who are diagnosed with diabetes often use them instead of sugar to help manage their blood sugar.

Can artificial sweeteners help you lose weight?

One strategy for weight loss is to eat fewer calories. Replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners can be one way to decrease how many calories you eat in a day. There has been a lot of research over the years on artificial sweeteners and their effects on weight loss. Many studies state that aspartame, when used in a weight loss or maintenance program may increase weight loss and assist a person with weight maintenance over time. Using either saccharin or sucralose with a calorie restricted diet or a person’s regular diet may result in weight loss only if the sweeteners are substituted for higher calories foods or beverages. In other words, these artificial sweeteners may only help with if they are used to create a calorie deficit (less calories in and more calories out). Drinking and eating them alone, without decreasing your total calorie intake, is not likely to result in weight loss.

Are artificial sweeteners safe? How much can I eat?

Yes! Many credible associations and researchers have conducted studies and compiled the evidence to say that artificial seeteners are safe to eat. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics concluded, “Consumers can safely enjoy a range of nutritive and non nutritive sweeteners when consumed within an eating plan that is guided by federal nutrition recommendations.” In other words, it is safe to eat both artificial sweeteners and sugars when paired with a balanced, healthy diet.

The Expert Committee on Food Additives has set acceptable intake of artificial sweeteners as a safety precaution. For example, a 150-pound adult could eat up to 37 grams of aspartame in one day before reaching the acceptable limit determined to be safe. 37 grams of aspartame equal about 19 diet sodas or about 107 packets.  Most people never consume amounts that exceed that safety level.

Many people believe that artificial sweeteners can cause cancer. The idea that NNS cause cancer is based on outdated animal studies. One such study fed rats high doses of aspartame every day until the rats naturally passed away. After the rat’s natural death, researchers found the rats developed cancer related tumors. Although this study may seem worrisome, it is important to remember two things. First, this study was conducted on rats, not humans, so the results cannot be directly carried over to the effects on humans. Second, this study gave rats more than the daily acceptable intake set for humans (above). Even if this study could be applied to humans, it would be similar to a person drinking more than 19 diet sodas every day for their entire life. I don’t know about you, but this does not seem very realistic to me. It may be reassuring to know that according to the National Cancer Institute, there is no evidence that any of the approved NNS will cause cancer.

Some people have reported gas, bloating and general stomach distress if artificial sweeteners are eaten in very large quantities. For most people aspartame, saccharin and sucralose are not associated with these symptoms.  There is no convincing evidence that these sweeteners are associated with negative health effects.

Another popular misconception is that Aspartame is bad for you because it has phenylalanine. Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a rare condition where a person’s body cannot break down that protein called phenylalanine. Aspartame contains phenylalanine so people diagnosed with PKU should avoid aspartame.  But, unless you do, phenylalanine is not a problem and occurs in many foods.

Bottom line

Artificial sweeteners are a safe alternative to sugar and can easily be a part of a healthy diet. They are not going to cause cancer but like anything else they should be eaten in moderation. Whether you choose to use artificial sweeteners or not, it is important to eat a well balanced diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.

If you have any questions, or would like to discuss a plan designed to address your conditions, please call our clinic to schedule an appointment with our Registered Dietitian.

By: Nada Abualoon, RD