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We are born with a desire for sweetness, and it remains with us throughout our lives. However, too much of a good thing can lead to problems such as obesity, cancer, and the health complications related to being overweight and obese.
Artificial sweeteners continue to be a controversial public health issue, and the research keeps coming. On one side, you have people that firmly oppose the use of artificial sweeteners because of the assumed link with increased risk for cancer and other diseases, while many continue to favor artificial sweeteners for their use to minimize caloric consumption from sweets and drinks.
Synthetic sugar substitutes produced through chemical processes result in artificial sweeteners that are hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose). The mechanism by which the human body and brain respond to these sweeteners is fairly complex.
Use of artificial sweeteners
The use of artificial sweeteners (non-caloric sweeteners) began with the need for cost reduction and continued on with the need for calorie reduction. It is interesting that artificial sweeteners were actually chemicals being developed for another purpose when researchers tasted it and found that it was many times sweeter than table sugar.
The safety of artificial sweeteners is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and since the 1950s, artificial sweeteners have become a weight-loss wonder that has allowed the major population to consume diet drinks and sweets without the calories and health complications related to obesity. More and more products containing artificial sweeteners are released for consumers, to which people may not be aware of their presence in foods. As per The National Household Nutritional Survey, it is estimated 15% of the US population regularly uses artificial sweeteners.
The majority of the population tend to naturally choose artificial sweeteners over sugar or other caloric sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) for the reason that they provide a large amount of rapidly absorbable carbohydrates, leading to excessive energy intake, weight gain, and metabolic syndrome.
As obesity rates grow, caloric sweeteners are cast as the culprits behind this epidemic, while artificial sweeteners are acclaimed by the public as “health food”. However, do artificial sweeteners really have a hand in reducing weight and minimizing obesity related problems?
The six FDA-approved artificial sweeteners, regulated as food additives, are saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, advantame, sucralose, and neotame. The facts about the safety of these artificial sweeteners are not clear cut. There tends to be a split in the medical community for being for or against their use.
An article from the FDA stated that a study from the early 1970’s found that saccharin was linked to bladder cancer in rats and mice and could therefore be carcinogenic for humans as well. Saccharin was then labelled as a potential carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program of the National Institutes of Health (NTP), and congress mandated further studies of saccharin and required a warning label to be printed onto all products containing saccharin. However, after more than 30 human studies, scientists saw that the results found in rats and mice were not seen similarly in humans. They attributed this to the difference of body weight compared to saccharin solution concentration . Consequently, the NTP officially delisted saccharin as a potential carcinogen in 2000 according to both the FDA and saccharin.org.
Aspartame was first discovered in 1965, but was not introduced into consumer foods and products until 1981 when it was approved by the FDA. Aspartame is a unique artificial sweetener being that it is made up of the amino acids aspartate and phenylalanine, both of which the body can break down and processes like normal food we eat.
Aspartame is one of the most well studied artificial sweeteners and has over 200 individual scientific studies supporting its safety. Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sucrose, therefore the amount needed per serving is decreased greatly. Aspartame is found in over 6000 food products and provides a unique advantage compared to other artificial sweeteners in that it does not contribute to tooth decay. The bacteria in the mouth are unable to break down aspartame therefore no harmful acid is produced. Many people and researchers have claimed that artificial sweeteners have been linked with cancer. However, after over 25 years of testing there has been no real link or indicator that aspartame causes or increases your chances of getting cancer.
This calorie-free sugar substitute is used in Sunett® and Sweet One® products and was first discovered in 1967. Below is the chemical structure of Acesulfame potassium and the product made from it.
Acesulfame potassium (ACK ) aids patients with type 1 diabetes by providing super sweet taste without affecting glycaemic responses and without the high content of caloric sugars. However, the consumption of ACK can lead to weight gain and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes according to the article published in Food Additives and Contaminants journal. An article by BioMed Central stated that higher insulin concentrations are observed from the people who consumed non-nutritive sweeteners including ACK and lead to subtle increases of glucose stimulated glucagon-like-peptide-1 (GLP-1) . This GLP-1 helps with weight loss and enhances insulin secretion, which in turn benefits patients with type 1 diabetes. In 2005, the National Institute of Health did a toxicology study for ACK for 9 months in mice and found that there is no association of ACK to the carcinogenic activity. However, Wei-na Cong et al. conducted a study in 2013 which stated that exposure to ACK for 40 weeks could affect cognitive functions such as anxiety in mice. So far there is no evidence that these same effects occur in humans.
Sucralose was discovered in 1979 and is more commonly recognized as Splenda. It’s preferred for baking and has a long shelf life due to its relative stability under heat and a large range of pH conditions.
According to the FDA, the majority of the sucralose ingested is unable to be absorbed and therefore passes through the GI tract as feces. Only 11-27% of it is absorbed into the bloodstream where most of it is filtered through the kidneys into urine, while 20-30% of the amount of sucralose absorbed is actually metabolized. After reviewing more than 110 studies, the FDA approved the use of sucralose as a general sweetener in 1999. Since then, sucralose has been used in numerous food products around the globe.
Over 100 studies were performed by the FDA to determine absorption, distribution, and excretion of Neotame in lab animals and humans. They found that Neotame does not accumulate in the body, and is excreted quickly among consumption. They also found that a high dosage of neotame consumed does not have a toxic effect on the body. Since neotame is a non-nutritive sweetener, it can help people who have trouble sustaining a healthy weight. It is also known to provide benefits to people with diabetes. Another study showed that there is no toxic results when consuming the proper dosage of neotame. According to Dr. Jyoti Bobde, who is a assistant professor in pharmacology in India, states that changes in food consumption, weight gain, and body weight can be a side effect of consuming Neotame. The studies have shown that Neotame is not toxic and has only one major side effect of consuming it.
So what’s the cost?
Despite what studies claim to prove or disprove about the health effects of artificial sweeteners, it is a unanimous opinion shared by all medical and health professionals to observe caution when substituting artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.
One concern attributing to this caution is the consumption of artificial sweeteners, for the reason that they may alter the way we taste food.
Artificial sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar/HFCS. Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent consumption of these extremely intense sweeteners may limit our tolerance for more complex tastes. This means people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find natural sweet foods such as fruits, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright revolting.
Although all six currently produced artificial sweeteners have met the FDA’s current safety standards for food additives, there’s no definitive guarantee that these products will never be found to pose health risks.
Our distinctive desire for sweetness may be compromising our ability to judge right from wrong. When we take a look at our diet, we find that nothing we consume does not come without a cost. This cost can be in the form of excess calories, fat, protein, or carbohydrates.
Is it wrong to believe that artificial sweeteners come at no cost?
Our operating principle must be “guilty until proven innocent”, when it comes to modern industrial foods and additives.
It’s our responsibility to be aware of what we are consuming and to protect our health.