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The Bottom Line on Artificial Sweeteners

Picture source: Flickr, by simple tess

As I have mentioned in my last post, I have asked my fellow dietitian, Angela Lamberson, who specializes in diabetes education about artificial sweeteners. She summed it up very nicely. I hope you find it as informative as I did…

It’s a controversial subject. Many people have very strong opinions regarding the use of artificial sweeteners and I’m often questioned about their safety. One of the most studied ingredients in our foods that have been shown to be safe, there’s more to the issue. Allow me to explain.

Artificial sweeteners can be categorized as: Non-nutritive Sweeteners, Reduced Calorie Sweeteners or Other Sweeteners.

Non-nutritive Sweeteners

There are five non-nutritive sweeteners approved by the FDA.

Sweetener Brand Names ADI* For use in Cooking & Baking Sweetness Level**
Acesulfame-K Sunett®, Sweet One® 15 mg/kg Yes 200×
Aspartame Nutrasweet®, Equal®, SugarTwin®, NatraTaste® 50 mg/kg Will not retain sweetness at high temperatures for extended periods 160-220×
Neotame N/A 18 mg/day Yes 7,000-13,000×
Saccharin Sweet’N Low®, Sweet Twin®, Necta Sweet® 5 mg/kg Yes 200-700×
Sucralose
Splenda®
5 mg/kg
Yes
600×
*ADI=Acceptable Daily Intake:  The weight of the sweetener per kg of an individual’s body weight that can safely be consumed every day over a lifetime without risk.
**Sweetness Level:  Times sweeter than sugar.

They have no calories, varying levels of sweetness, and some are better for cooking than others. Regarding the safety question, all are safe in moderation. An exception is the use of aspartame in people with the rare genetic disease, phenylketonuria (PKU), who are unable metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine (a byproduct of the metabolism of aspartame).

Reduced Calorie Sweeteners

These include sugar alcohols and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. Unlike the name suggests, sugar alcohols–sorbitol, mannitol, lactitiol, maltitol, xylitol, isomalt and erythritol–contain no alcohol. They are made by chemically altering natural sugar and are found primarily in packaged foods such as cookies, gum, and candy often labeled as “sugar free.” However, these products do contain carbohydrates and some calories, so be sure to read the Nutrition Facts label for calories and total carbohydrates. Sugar alcohols should be used in moderation as they can cause diarrhea.

You might be interested in: Are Sugar-free Products Better?

Other Sweeteners

There are those sweeteners that are not FDA-approved. The manufacturers may be waiting approval or have no intention of gaining it. An example is stevia. It’s a naturally sweet herb that contains no calories. Although not FDA-approved, many varieties of stevia have recently been given GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) status from the FDA. Brand names include, Only Sweet, PureVia, Reb-A, Rebiana, Sweet Leaf, and Truvia.

Another example is the recently popular agave nectar, derived from the juice of the agave plant in the Mexican dessert. It’s not calorie or carbohydrate free as it contains up to 90% fructose (sugar). Some experts believe that pregnant women should use agave nectar with caution, as some species contain steroids with contraceptive effects which could lead to miscarriage.

The Bottom Line

The use of artificial sweeteners is a personal choice and no one type of sweetener is better than another. They can be helpful for individuals who want to control calories or carbohydrate intake. If you want to use them, choose the sweetener that tastes best to you.

Keep in mind that many packaged products that contain artificial sweeteners are highly processed and low in nutrients. In the same sense, just because a product is sold in a health food store, it’s not more “natural” or superior than products purchased in a grocery store.

Include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat dairy products in your diet.  You will be automatically reducing your intake of sugar and increasing vitamins and minerals.

Angela Lamberson, MS, RD, LDN, CDE and her husband, John Lamberson, MS, RD, LDN, CDE are Registered Dietitians and Certified Diabetes Educators. They are co-owners of Nutrition Pair, LLC. They provide nutrition and diabetes education with a personal edge through individual nutrition counseling, group presentations, and consulting services.
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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Georgie Fear June 28, 2010, 11:03 am

    Thanks for sharing this well-thought and concise article on artificial sweeteners. The internet can be a place of outlandish inflated claims – but this piece contains refreshingly grounded information!

    Georgie Fear RD

  • Angie Lamberson June 28, 2010, 12:09 pm

    Thanks, Georgie. So true! Thanks for commenting!

    Angie

  • Nour El-Zibdeh, RD June 28, 2010, 5:43 pm

    Thanks Georgie for the comment. I agree about the internet and that’s why I love reading what other RDs say.

    Thanks Angie again for the article and for commenting back!

  • Corinne June 28, 2010, 6:24 pm

    Agreed! Well put conclusion!

  • TwinToddlersDad June 28, 2010, 9:57 pm

    Excellent, well researched article.
    I am curious about the basis for setting the ADI limits. What kind of tests are done to establish these limits?

    I am guessing that most manufacturers will claim that typical use by adults and children fall much below the ADI limits. I wonder if these numbers are inflated or if they are ever adjusted based on new research.

  • Nicole, RD June 29, 2010, 10:12 am

    What a wonderful summary! It was featured on Nutrition Blog Network in case you hadn’t seen 🙂 Congrats!

  • Nour El-Zibdeh, RD June 29, 2010, 4:03 pm

    Twin Toddler Dad: Good question. This is what I found on mayoclinic website:

    “The FDA has established an “acceptable daily intake” (ADI) for each sweetener. This is the maximum amount considered safe to eat each day during your lifetime. ADIs are intended to be about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns.”

    So, the ADI is well below the dangerous level. However, my guess is that once a product is approved, no one is doing any new research to update the research, unless there is a concern or a reason to believe that a product is causing any new serious side effects.

    Nicole: thanks and I saw that on Nutrition Blog Network. It seems like when anyone in the group updates their blog, the new post gets featured. It’s a great idea and location to find RDs online–you should join if you haven’t already.