To hear some people talk, artificial sweeteners are the best thing since sliced bread. They're touted as calorie-free and diabetic- and dental-friendly additives. That's all true, but it's just one side of the story.
Artificial sweeteners are chemically designed to fake out your taste buds and your digestive system.. Some start as sugars -- tagatose, for example, is a modified form of lactose. Others are manufactured from scratch. The resulting sweeteners stimulate the taste buds far more intensely than sugar. Aspartame registers as 200 times sweeter than sugar -- saccharin up to 700 times sweeter. Thus they're used in such miniscule amounts that even the types that do contain calories contribute negligible amounts to your daily intake. Because they're not digested as sugars, they're safer for people with diabetes. And the bacteria in your mouth that would feast on sugar to attack your teeth go hungry.
Artificial sweeteners can be tailored for specific applications. Sucralose, for example, is heat-stable; it doesn't break down in cooking or baking.
Despite recurring alarms about harmful effects, all artificial sweeteners on the market have undergone rigorous testing at amounts far exceeding the typical intake. They're approved by the Food and Drug Administration as GRAS -- "generally recognized as safe" -- substances. If a sweetener does have potential side effects -- mostly minor problems like gastic bloating or headaches -- that warning must be included on the label of any food that contains it.
Before you imagine a life free of calorie- or carb-counting, know the downsides. First, artificial sweeteners don't make food "healthy." Depending on the sweeteners used and other ingredients added, sugar-free foods may not even be lower in calories than regular foods.
Speaking of calories, artificial sweeteners don't automatically help you lose weight. They can tempt you to blow your calorie savings on less nutritious choices -- thus the popular combo of a diet soda and large fries. Also, they don't trigger feelings of fullness like sugars do; you might scarf half that bag of sugar-free cookies before your brain says "enough."
The bottom line: Artificial sweeteners can lead you away from healthful foods and don't teach sound nutritional habits. Which, ironically, is the same argument against using sugars in the first place. This makes us think that Nature knew what she was doing when she packaged sweeteners with proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals. We don't presume to be smarter than she is, so we'll recommend her model: Make sweeteners part of the menu, not the main course.