People often have to use artificial sweeteners because of a medical condition. For example, sugar substitutes can be great for diabetics, who can't tolerate real sugar because their bodies can't produce the hormone insulin. Insulin delivers the sugar from our blood to our cells, where we utilize it as energy. When your body doesn't have enough insulin, sugar builds up in the blood and doesn't get into the cells. This condition is known as high blood sugar and can be extremely dangerous for people with diabetes. Because sugar substitutes do not contain any glucose (and therefore do not require insulin), they can be effective sweeteners for people with diabetes.
A more popular reason for using artificial sweeteners is saving calories. However, this notion might not be as effective as you think. Although it is true that diet soft drinks and other artificially sweetened foods can save you a lot of sugar calories, several studies have shown that people who “save calories” with these diet foods usually wind up eating those saved calories somewhere else. Pretty ironic, huh? Did you know that a real sugar packet (that's 1 teaspoon) has only 16 calories? You can easily burn that off walking an extra flight of stairs. It's certainly something to think about the next time you grab artificial sweetener.
Artificial sweeteners have always been the subject of much controversy. Before you tear open your gazillionth nonsugar packet, read the following and learn the facts.
One of the first sugar substitutes to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval was saccharin (Sweet & Low), and it continues to be popular. Although several studies suggest that saccharin in large quantities can cause cancer (specifically bladder tumors) in laboratory rats, no harmful effects have been shown in humans.
Another popular artificial sweetener is aspartame, better known as NutraSweet or Equal. Aspartame consists of two protein fragments (phenylalanine and aspartic acid) and has had FDA approval since 1981. It is presently found in more than 5,000 different products, and there is no evidence of any harmful effects from its use. However, because aspartame does contain phenylalanine, individuals with the metabolic disorder PKU (an inherited disease in which the body cannot dispose of excess phenylalanine) should consult their physicians before using this sweetener.
A little more obscure, but gaining popularity, is the sweetener called Stevia. Stevia (STEE-vee-uh) is a South American shrub whose leaves have been used as a sweetener for centuries by native peoples in Paraguay and Brazil. Stevioside, the main ingredient, is virtually calorie-free and hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar. Although not commonly used in the United States, Canada, or European countries, this sweetener is quite accepted in Japan and has been used by manufacturers since the early 1970s.
To date, the FDA has not approved Stevia simply because there is not enough data to conclude its safety. In fact, one study suggested that large amounts of Stevia can cause reproductive problems in both men and women. There's also a slight question about the potential for cancer. Clearly, more information needs to be gathered, but until then, if you use Stevia, do so in small to moderate amounts.
Another recent artificial sweetener to come into the market is called Splenda (sucralose). Splenda was discovered in 1976 and is made by replacing three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar (sucrose) molecule with three tightly bound chlorine atoms. Because sucralose is not broken down, the sweetener has no calories, and the body does not recognize it as a carbohydrate. Approximately 600 times sweeter than sugar, Splenda is exceptionally stable and can withstand long shelf-life and hot cooking temperatures. Furthermore, sucralose received FDA approval in April 1998 for use in 15 food and beverage categories, the broadest initial approval ever given to a no-calorie sweetener.
Splenda Brand Sweetener (sucralose) has been subjected to one of the most extensive and thorough safety testing programs ever conducted on a new food additive. Over 50 regulatory agencies worldwide have permitted the use of Splenda Brand Sweetener, including the FDA, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives ( JECFA), the Health Protection Branch of Health and Welfare Canada, and Australia's National Food Authority.
The newest sweetener to recently gain FDA approval is Neotame. Depending upon its food application, Neotame is approximately 7,000+ times sweeter than sugar, and may be used in most cooking applications. Neotame is a free-flowing, water-soluble powder, and has undergone more than 113 animal studies. To date, the FDA concludes that this sweetener is safe for human consumption. Stay tuned for further information.
The bottom line is that artificial sweeteners can safely be part of a well-balanced diet. Just don't get so carried away that you view sugar as the enemy. Remember, the dietary guidelines suggest eating real sugar in moderation, not avoiding it altogether.