Artificial Sweeteners: They're Enough to Give Some People a Headache
By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, February 17, 2009; HE03
I'm not a fan of artificial sweeteners. I don't care for the way they
taste, and one variety in particular gives me headaches. So imagine my
dismay when I recently shopped for my favorite chewing gum and found
its tiny but satisfying amount of real sugar had been replaced with
aspartame, one of the leading fake sweeteners on the market. Hello,
I'm apparently in the minority when it comes to artificial (or
synthetic, or non-nutritive, or high-intensity) sweeteners; I was hard-
pressed to find a pack of gum or breath mints that was conventionally
sweetened. According to the American Dietetic Association, nine out of
10 Americans uses artificial sweeteners; the Calorie Control Council,
a trade organization representing manufacturers of low- and reduced-
calorie foods and beverages, reports that in 2007, 194 million
American adults consumed low-cal or sugar-free foods and beverages.
That's up from 180 million in 2004.
Taste aside, the benefits of reduced-calorie sweeteners are obvious:
They allow people to indulge a sweet tooth without packing on pounds.
Aspartame-sweetened Extra chewing gum, for instance, is the official
sweet treat for "The Biggest Losers" TV show and is credited on the
show's Web site as having helped winning contestants curb their urge
to snack on high-calorie treats. Artificially sweetened foods and
drinks also help people avoid "nutrient displacement," which can
occur, for example, when they fill themselves up on sugary foods that
don't have any nutritional value at all (such as non-diet soda).
But some studies have suggested that artificially sweetened foods and
beverages may in some cases contribute to people becoming overweight.
It's thought that perhaps the body gets confused: The sweet taste
signals calorie delivery, but when those anticipated calories don't
materialize, the body might overcompensate and prod people to overeat.
The hot news in the realm of sweeteners is the introduction of stevia-
based Truvia to supermarket shelves.
Stevia, derived from a South American shrub, has been used as a
sweetener in some cultures for centuries. It has been available in
health-food stores here for a while, but its use is expected to become
widespread now that the Food and Drug Administration has deemed the
stevia-plant derivative rebaudioside A, or rebiana, to be a "generally
recognized as safe," or GRAS, dietary supplement. Both Coca-Cola and
Pepsi have stevia-sweetened soft drinks in the pipeline. And the
Truvia folks are heavily promoting the notion that their product is
But as Michael Jacobson, executive director of the food-industry
watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest, points out,
"natural" doesn't necessarily mean "safe." Just ask Socrates: The
hemlock that killed him was perfectly natural, too.
Jacobson says stevia hasn't been adequately studied in labs, and
CSPI's Web site says its derivates should be avoided or used with
Of the other non-caloric sweeteners on the market, CSPI calls
sucralose safe to use; the organization urges caution about the others
for their murky testing histories.
On the other hand, the American Dietetic Association embraces all of
the current high-density sweeteners. "The bottom line is that they're
sold in the United States with the guiding principle that they're
safe," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, an ADA spokeswoman. "Any consumer
can feel confident that the government has said they're safe."
"Should you be eating them?" Blatner continues. "That's a matter of
personal preference. If you like the way they taste," then they can be
part of your balanced diet.
Despite CSPI's call for more and better science and in light of
Americans' ever-expanding waistlines (and the attendant health
problems), Jacobson says, "I'd rather people drink diet soda than
regular soda. You've got to weigh the speculative risk of cancer
against the certain risks of obesity and calorie displacement."
Check out today's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer fields readers'
opinions about low- and no-calorie sweeteners
The Choice Is Yours
Tuesday, February 17, 2009; HE03
Brand names: Equal, NutraSweet
160 to 220 times sweeter than sugar (sucrose)
Several animal studies have suggested that aspartame, a combination of
two amino acids and methanol, might cause cancer, but human research
conducted by the National Cancer Institute and reported in 2006 showed
no such harm; the Food and Drug Administration considers it safe,
though some people (like me) may get headaches if they consume too
much. NutraSweet Co. also makes the hyper-sweet neotame (it's 7,000 to
13,000 times sweeter than sugar), which can be used in baked goods and
other products. Some people are born with a condition that makes them
sensitive to aspartame.
Brand name: Sweet 'N Low
200-700 times sweeter than sugar
Lots of back-and-forth research as to whether saccharin causes cancer;
the FDA actually proposed removing it from the market in 1977, but it
soon returned, with a warning notice. That notice was axed in 2000;
the Center for Science in the Public Interest still recommends against
Brand names: Truvia, PureVia (both also called rebiana)
100--200 times sweeter than sugar
Derived from the stevia bush, this natural sweetener is also known as
rebaudioside A. The controversial sweetener was rejected by the FDA
and by similar agencies in Canada and Europe in the 1990s for fear it
might cause cancer or damage users' reproductive systems. A
reformulation gained FDA approval last December. CSPI protested,
saying further testing was needed.
Brand name: Splenda
600 times sweeter than sugar
Billed as a natural sweetener because it's sugar-based, sucralose is
actually a processed product formed by treating sugar, or sucrose,
with chlorine. It's got the best safety profile of the bunch.
Acesulfame-K (the K stands for potassium)
Brand name: Sunett
200 times sweeter than sugar
This synthetic sweetener is often paired with sucralose. CSPI is wary
that this product, tests for which were, it claims "of mediocre
quality" and conducted 30 years ago, may be carcinogenic and asked the
FDA not to approve it in 1996.