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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Conrad

Are Artificial Sweeteners Really that Bad?

Let's face it we all love our sweets.

For the average person, there's nothing wrong with sugar, unless all the sweet foods in your daily diet are keeping you from eating and drinking the nutritious foods you need. But for people who are trying to lose weight, or have to watch their blood sugar because of diabetes, too much sugar can be a problem. That's where artificial sweeteners can come in handy. The average 12-ounce can of sugar-sweetened soda delivers about 150 calories, almost all of them from sugar. The same amount of diet soda—zero calories. The choice seems like a no-brainer.

These low-calorie sweeteners, reports the International Food Information Council, are safe to use, provide sweetness without calories, and provide a choice of sweet foods. The American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) cautiously approve artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, all risk factors for heart disease.

The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners:

Acesulfame potassium (Sunett)

Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal)

Sucralose (Splenda)

D-Tagatose (Sugaree)

Saccharin (Sweet 'N Low)

A controversial sweetener, Saccharin, was almost banned by the FDA based on the reports that saccharin was causing bladder cancer in male rats. The director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health, Ruth Kava, says that further research has shown that male rats have a particular pH factor that predisposes them to bladder cancer. What may be true for male rats does not necessarily hold true for humans (or even for female rats)." A lot of things that cause harm in animals don't always cause harm in humans," she says.

Some people experience symptoms such as headaches and upset stomachs, but otherwise, there is no credible information that aspartame -- or any other artificial sweetener -- causes brain tumors, or any other illness, says registered dietitian Wendy Vida, with HealthPLACE, the health and wellness division of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield in Pittsburgh.

“While they are not magic bullets, smart use of non-nutritive sweeteners could help you reduce added sugars in your diet, therefore lowering the number of calories you eat. Reducing calories could help you attain and maintain a healthy body weight, and thereby lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes,” said Dr. Christopher Gardner, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University in California, in a press release accompanying the scientific statement.

Another sweetener receiving attention is stevia, an herbal sweetening ingredient used in food and beverages by South American natives for many centuries and in Japan since the mid-1970s. According to Ray Sahelian, MD, author of The Stevia Cookbook, stevia has shown no significant side effects after more than 20 years of use in Japan. "There are no indications at this point from any source that stevia has shown toxicity in humans," says Sahelian, though he agrees that further research is needed. Stevia is not FDA approved, but can and is sold as a dietary supplement. There's no guarantee of purity.

“Sugar-containing foods in their natural form, whole fruit, for example, tend to be highly nutritious—nutrient-dense, high in fiber, and low in glycemic load. On the other hand, refined, concentrated sugar consumed in large amounts rapidly increases blood glucose and insulin levels, increases triglycerides, inflammatory mediators and oxygen radicals, and with them, the risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses,” Dr. Ludwig explains, an obesity and weight-loss specialist at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital.

How the human body and brain respond to these sweeteners is very complex. Some people might think:

1. "Oh I drank a diet soda, so now I can have an extra 3 slices of cake". Wrong.

2. It is also possible these sweeteners change the way we taste food. Saccharin 300 times sweeter than sugar. The AHA and ADA say, "Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes,” explains Dr. Ludwig. Eating too many sweeteners may decrease the sensitivity to fruit and vegetables. So, if you begin to dislike fruits and vegetables after implementing sweeteners into your diet, it might be time to decrease the amount of sweeteners you're ingesting for more filling, healthy and nutritious foods.

3. More research suggests that sweeteners may prevent us from associating sweetness with caloric intake. As a result, we crave more sweets, tend to choose sweet food over nutritious food, and gain weight.

4. These sweeteners also might be addictive.

The main purpose is to help people reduce caloric intake and/or control diabetes. If you don't need to watch your calories or your blood sugar, there is no real reason to use the sweeteners unless you enjoy the taste. Everything in moderation. If you can, choose fruits and veggies as your source of sugar, but a diet soda won't hurt every now and then.


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