Artificial sweeteners have been a part of the food supply for a long time. Ever since a Russian chemist discovered saccharin by accident in 1878, the quest for finding an alternative to table sugar has been nonstop.
Sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners are substances that can be used to sweeten foods and beverages in place of table sugar. Artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar therefore much smaller amounts can be used to achieve the same level of sweetness without adding little or no calories. That has been the goal of sugar substitutes to find that perfect stand-in without having to sacrifice taste and yet reduce calories that promote weight gain.
Regulation of artificial sweeteners
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating artificial sweeteners. In 1958, Congress passed the Food Additives Amendment to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requiring the FDA to approve food additives, including artificial sweeteners, before they could be made available for sale in the United States. Some artificial sweeteners fall under the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list which is when a substance is known and accepted widely that it is safe under the condition of its intended use.
Six artificial sweeteners in use
Currently, there are six artificial sweeteners approved for use in the United States: acesulfame K, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, stevia and sucralose. Each has a different function and have been approved either by the FDA or under GRAS and determined that when consumed in moderation, can be part of a healthy diet.
Can they cause weight gain?
One of the main purposes of developing artificial sweeteners was to be able to essentially “have you cake and eat it too,” meaning most of us have a sweet tooth and want to eat high-calorie sweets but without gaining weight. However, there have been concerns that artificial sweeteners may be doing just the opposite by causing weight gain. As far back as the 1970s, the Nurses’ Health Study found weight gain in women using saccharin. Another study called the San Antonio Heart Study found that adults who consumed more artificial sweeteners had higher body mass indexes.
The theory of why this may happen is that when you consume a food or beverage artificially sweetened, it actually may be increasing sugar cravings. Your body senses the intense sweetness expecting calories when there are none. This causes the body to crave those calories leading you to seek out food that do contain calories leading to weight gain. Another possibility is when regularly consuming artificial sweeteners, which are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, it conditions your taste buds to prefer that intense sweetness making your cravings for sweets much stronger. It’s sort of like training your taste buds to prefer skim milk over whole milk. If you’ve always drank whole milk, drinking skim milk will taste very watered down and unfulfilling. But once you get used to the taste of skim milk, drinking whole milk will taste too rich almost like drinking pure cream.
How much of an artificial sweetener is safe to consume?
Each of the artificial sweeteners approved for use has had an acceptable daily intake (ADI) established. The ADI is the amount of food additive that can be consumed daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk to a person on the basis of all the known facts at the time of evaluation. Basically the ADI’s are intended to be about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns. To determine your ADI, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 and then multiply by the appropriate number in milligrams. The chart below under “Review of artificial sweeteners” shows the ADI for each one. Let’s use saccharin as an example: if you weigh 176 pounds, your weight in kg would be 80 (176 divided by 2.2); therefore your ADI for saccharin would be 400 mg/day (80 x 5).
Possible health concerns
Artificial sweeteners have been studied intensely for decades. One of the biggest health concerns has been a possible risk of increasing cancer. The National Cancer Institute along with other health agencies, has established no sound scientific evidence of any of the artificial sweeteners currently approved for use in the United States to cause cancer or other serious health problems.
However, you have to use good judgement in the use of them. Whether it’s a food or beverage, if foods containing artificial sweeteners are used in moderation, they can be part of a healthy diet. Remember, artificial sweeteners are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food additive and have to be reviewed and approved by the FDA before being made available for sale.
What about Stevia?
Stevia is a non-calorie natural sweetener made from the leaves of a shrub called Stevia rebaudiana that grow in Central and South America. The brand names of Stevia are “Pure Via” and “Truvia” and are about 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar.
Stevia has been approved but only for the use of certain refined Stevia preparations in food which have been allowed to be lawfully marketed and added to food products sold in the United States. The FDA does not allow the use of whole-leaf Stevia or crude Stevia extracts as there have been concerns of blood sugar control and effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular and renal systems.
If used in moderation, you should not have any issues with artificial sweeteners. If you want to avoid them completely, read the ingredient labels on food and research what types of food products they may be added to. As a precaution, pregnant women and children should use them much less frequently as the long-term effects are unknown.
The use of artificial sweeteners for decreasing calories and promoting weight loss may or may not benefit the user as it is not clear if they are effective for preventing weight gain. The intense sweetness is perceived by the body and could condition your taste buds to seek out high-sugar foods. Be aware of this if you find yourself craving highly sweetened foods.
An occasional diet soda or other food made with an artificial sweetener can be used safely. Keep in mind there are always healthier low-calorie alternatives such as drinking more water, skim milk and unsweetened tea or coffee.