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The Truth About Artificial Sweeteners


Many of us accept that our diets could do without sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), but we may also have a hard time going without them. For those who just can't give up regular soda, sweetened coffee or tea (among many others), artificial sweeteners can help by adding taste without adding significant calories. 

Over the years, though, consumers and even some scientists have come to doubt the safety of artificial sweeteners, like aspartame and sucralose, because faulty studies initially showed links to cancer. To learn about those studies, and for the latest information on research related to artificial sweeteners, check out this fact sheet from the National Institutes of Health.

In the effort to encourage patients, employees and visitors to reduce or eliminate SSBs, Children's Colorado often suggests they turn to drinks that may have artificial sweeteners. But doubt persists, so Children's Colorado nutritionist Janice Fordyce, MS, RD, spells out the truth on sugar and its substitutes.

The bottom line, Fordyce says, is to watch your amounts of any sweetener -- sugar, high fructose corn syrup, Splenda, NutraSweet, and stevia -- and be careful about the information you read.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

We associate sugar with obesity, but lab mice that ate high fructose corn syrup (this sweetener hides in everything from ketchup to yogurt) gained more weight than lab mice that ate regular sugar, even though they ate the same amount of calories.

Sucralose (Splenda)

Food scientists make Splenda by replacing three atoms in the sugar molecules with three chlorine atoms. The body does not store the chlorine, but excretes it in the urine. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report that Splenda is safe for diabetics, pregnant women and children. However, some animal studies suggest that the Splenda molecules could affect the gut flora (microorganisms that naturally live in the digestive tract).

Aspartame (NutraSweet)

Aspartame comes from the amino acids L-phenylalanine and L-aspartate, both of which the body makes. After the FDA approved NutraSweet, though, problems with the manufacturer's (Searle) safety testing program, including testing of aspartame, surfaced. This has led to considerable doubt as to the sweetener's safety. NutraSweet is the most studied artificial sweetener, and regulatory agencies' reviews, conducted decades after aspartame was first approved, still assert its safety.

Stevia

This is the newcomer of the sweeteners, and is not artificial. Food scientists develop an extract from the stevia plant's leaves as a sweetener. A study of more than 66,000 women over a 14-year period showed that beverages sweetened with sugar and beverages artificially sweetened both were associated with the occurrence of type 2 diabetes. The only sweetener, however, that does not seem to cause this is stevia (though the evidence is not conclusive). Two 2010 review studies found no health concerns with stevia or its sweetening extracts.