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Sugar, Sugar: Your Crash Course in Artificial Sweeteners

Sugar on spoon
Artificial sweeteners have both benefits and drawbacks.
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Our food sources are under a more watchful eye these days as health concerns become more pressing. Disease seems to be flaring up in people of all ages and obesity rates are rising to epidemic levels. As a result, people are starting to pay more attention to what they're eating. It's a well-known fact that most people love to eat things that taste sweet, which might explain why you'd be hard pressed to walk into a grocery store and find a packaged food that doesn't contain some sort of sugar or sugar derivative. The American Heart Association has recently come out saying that women should consume only 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day and men a maximum of 9 teaspoons. You could get much of this recommended daily allowance from your breakfast cereal alone. So what's a sweets lover to do?

Artificial sweeteners were created during World War I because of sugar shortages and stayed popular because of their non-caloric aspect. Despite the controversy about whether or not these synthetic sweeteners are good for you, there's no doubt that they do have some benefits. Artificial sweeteners are referred to as non-nutritive, so they don't supply you with fats, carbs or sugars, meaning, these non-caloric additives allow you to partake in sweets, like candy and cola, without adding extra pounds. Artificial sweeteners also allow diabetics to enjoy the occasional sweet treat or soda without worrying about affecting their blood sugar. And you can expect a better report from your dentist if you opt for sugar free sweeteners versus real sugar. There are a variety of different kinds of artificial sweeteners on the market, so read on to learn more about them.

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Even though artificial sweeteners are technically synthetic sugar substitutes, some of them are derived from natural sources, like herbs or actual sugar. But they aren't to be confused with another class of sugar substitutes, like honey and agave nectar, which are natural sugar substitutes that do contain calories. Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than actual sugar, so you can use a lot less to get the job done. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has currently approved five artificial sweeteners for use in the United States.

Saccharin, the main ingredient in Sweet 'N Low and SugarTwin, is 400 times sweeter than sugar, yet a little pink packet only has four calories. It's a popular sweetener, but is known for a bitter aftertaste.

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Aspartame, which is the main ingredient in those blue packets of Equal and NutraSweet, is 200 times sweeter than sugar and is typically found in diet sodas. It's a popular choice because it doesn't have an aftertaste.

Sucralose, which is the newest kid on the block, is 600 times sweeter than sugar and can be found in yellow packets of Splenda. It also has no aftertaste, but was in the news for a little while for its tendency to cause digestive issues, like gas and bloating.

Acesulfame-potassium, which is found in Sunette and Sweet One, and Neotame, similar to Aspartame. Both were approved as general purpose sweeteners in everything but meat and poultry, but they're not quite as well-known by consumers as the previous three.

So these are the main sweeteners that allow you to have your cake and eat it too. But you may have heard some controversial discussions about artificial sweeteners causing cancer and other health issues. To find out if this is true, keep reading.

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Your daily soda may not be that bad for you after all.
Your daily soda may not be that bad for you after all.
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If you drink diet soda, you've surely encountered someone who says they heard that artificial sweeteners cause cancer. This has been a suspicion since the 1970s, when tests were performed on lab rats. The rats were exposed to high levels of saccharin, which were shown to cause bladder cancer, so saccharin was slapped with a warning label. Further research showed that rats have a predisposition to bladder cancer and the way saccharin affects rats doesn't apply to people because of our different physiology. So, the warning label was removed, but the bad reputation stuck.

Artificial sweeteners fall into the food additives category, so they're regulated by the FDA. This means they have to be thoroughly tested to be deemed safe before they become available in the marketplace. And over the years, no tests have conclusively proven that artificial sweeteners cause cancer. As part of the testing, the FDA has established an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for each sweetener. This number is around 100 times less than the smallest amount that could cause harm. You would have to drink diet sodas back to back all day long to get anywhere close to the ADI. So overall, experts say artificial sweeteners are safe for most people.

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That isn't to say that some sweeteners don't cause complications for certain folks. People with the genetic disorder PKU (pheylketonuria) shouldn't use anything containing aspartame because they can't metabolize the main ingredient. And as we mentioned previously, sucralose can cause digestive difficulties for some people. For the rest of us, the rule of thumb with artificial sweeteners is the same as with most other foods. Moderation is the key.

Related Articles

Sources

  • "Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer." Cancer.gov. April 22, 2012. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/artificial-sweeteners
  • "Artificial Sweeteners and Diabetes." Webmd.com. April 22, 2012. http://diabetes.webmd.com/artificial-sweeteners-diabetes-patients
  • "Artificial Sweeteners Are Unnecessary and Unwise." Drmcdougall.com. April 22, 2012. http://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2006nl/nov/sweeteners.htm
  • "Artificial sweeteners: Understanding these and other sugar substitutes." Mayoclinic.com. April 22, 2012. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/artificial-sweeteners/MY00073
  • "Cut back, way back, on sugar, says heart group." Msnbc.com. April 22, 2012. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32543288/ns/health-diet_and_nutrition/t/cut-back-way-back-sugar-says-heart-group/#.T5VG70831gw
  • Dalao, Bernadette. "The Five Types of Artificial Sweeteners: Benefits, Risks, and How They Compare to Sugar." Healthmad.com. August 9, 2008. http://healthmad.com/nutrition/the-five-types-of-artificial-sweeteners-benefits-risks-and-how-they-compare-to-sugar/
  • Eglash, Joanne. "4 Types of Artificial Sweeteners & Sugar Substitutes -- Side Effects, Pros & Cons." Moneycrashers.com. April 22, 2012. http://www.moneycrashers.com/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-substitutes/
  • Mann, Denise. "Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?" Webmd.com. April 22, 2012. http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/are-artificial-sweeteners-safe

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