Artificial Sweeteners – Myths and Facts Explained

Artificial sweeteners primarily include derived sugar substitutes that provide zero to minimal calories in your diet compared to table sugar. The growing demand for alternatives to sugar has made them immensely popular with consumers. Artificial sweeteners today are used in different types of baked goods, diet beverages, desserts, spreads, puddings and several other products. People managing chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity particularly find this to be a suitable option because they get to taste the sweetness in their favorite foods minus the risk of excess calories. 

With all the possible benefits from artificial sweeteners, there is conflicting research regarding its advantages and possible side effects. Some research studies have indicated increase in Body Mass Index (BMI) in subjects using some of these sweeteners versus those who did not use them (Brown et al.). One of the possible explanations is that the human brain responds by providing cues to eat more when it detects a sweet taste. When people consume sweeteners that provide virtually no calories, the brain still prompts us to eat more sugary foods that can increase overall calorie consumption. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviews and regulates the introduction of any new sweeteners.

The following is a list six artificial sweeteners that have been tested and approved by the FDA: 

  1. Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame K): It is 200 times sweeter than table sugar that is marketed in the USA under the trade names Sunett and Sweet One. It is heat-stable and used in carbonated drinks, mouthwash, toothpaste, chewable and liquid medications and some protein shakes. 
  2. Saccharin: It is about 300-400 times sweeter than table sugar, marketed in the USA under the trade names SugarTwin/Sweet’NLow. It is used commercially in sugar-free beverages, desserts, candies, toothpaste and medications. Saccharin is heat-stable and suitable for cooking and baking. It tends to have a bitter after-taste when used at high concentrations.
  3. Aspartame: It is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar and used in several carbonated beverages. It is marketed in the USA under the trade name Equal or NutraSweet. It is used in soft drinks, gum, cereals and yogurt. Aspartame should be avoided by individuals suffering from Phenylketonuria (PKU), since one of its breakdown products includes phenylalanine that cannot be metabolized by them.
  4. Neotame: It is about 7,000-13,000 times sweeter than table sugar and is preferred by many food manufacturers due to its stability and safety for consumption. Although it is chemically similar to aspartame, due to the alternative metabolic pathway used for its breakdown in the body it is generally considered safe for individuals with PKU.
  5. Sucralose: It is 320-1,000 times sweeter than table sugar and is marketed in the USA under the brand name Splenda. It is heat-stable, does not have an after-taste and is available in a granular form. Sucralose is used in a variety of food products like carbonated beverages, baked goods, breakfast bars, and canned foods.
  6. Advantame: It is 20,000 times sweeter than table sugar and can be used as a sweetener as well as a flavor enhancer in foods (except meat and poultry). It is heat stable with no after-taste and can be used as a substitute in place of high-fructose corn syrup in foods and beverages. 

In addition to the above listed six FDA approved artificial sweeteners there are a few more that are growing in popularity:

  • Sugar Alcohols: These are also called Polyols that are naturally present in berries, fruits, and certain vegetables. Polyols are approved by the FDA as a sugar substitute; however, they do provide a minimal amount of calories. It is used in chewing gum and some toothpaste brands because of its ability to fight tooth decay. One of the drawbacks of sugar alcohol is that since they are not completely metabolized by the body they may cause gastrointestinal side effects such as bloating, cramping and diarrhea.
  • Sucanat: It is made from crushed sugarcane juice that is heated at high temperatures to form syrup that is dried. It does have a grainy texture with a molasses-like taste. It is generally not preferred for baking purposes.
  • Agave Nectar: It is made from the agave plant and includes a combination of fructose and glucose. Due to its low glycemic index, it is used in products like beverages, energy bars, and chocolate. However, since it includes fructose as one of its ingredients it is caught in the controversy regarding the benefits versus possible side effects with developing insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome etc.
  • Stevia: It is a natural herb that is widely grown in Latin America. Currently, the FDA has only approved one of the extracts of Stevia called Rebaudioside A, or Rebiana, for commercial use. It is about 300 times sweeter than sugar, sugar-free, and heat stable. It is used in many sports drinks and baked goods. One of the major drawbacks of Stevia is that it has a bitter after-taste. 
  • Monk Fruit Extract: It is a melon-like gourd that is found in China and northern Thailand. It is also called luo han guo (or kuo) and is marketed under the brand name Nectresse. Monk fruit contains antioxidants called Mongrosides that are about 200-500 times sweeter than table sugar and it is heat-stable. It is approved by the FDA and is commercially used in beverages, cereals and some whey protein powder supplements.

With all the choices available for consumers to enjoy various sugar-free products, there are some basic guidelines to be followed. Always, refer to the Nutrition Facts label to determine the ingredients, serving size and carbohydrate content of the product. Remember that not all sugar-free products are necessarily calorie-free. The FDA only approves sugar-free products to be consumed in moderation. Review the limitations and scientific research before including any artificial sweeteners in your daily diet.

By Vidya Sharma, MA, RD, LD, CDE

 

References:

Brown, Rebecca J., Mary Ann De Banate, and Kristina I. Rother. “Artificial Sweeteners: A Systematic Review of Metabolic Effects in Youth.” International journal of pediatric obesity : IJPO : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 5.4 (2010): 305–312. PMC. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.

www.diabetes.org

www.diabetesselfmanagement.com

www.fda.gov

www.mayoclinic.org