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Are Artificial Sweeteners Bad For You?

There is a lot of controversy about the dangers of using sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners such as Sweet N Low (saccharin), Splenda (sucralose), Nutrasweet, Equal (aspartame), to name a few. Women, especially, always eager to lose a few pounds, tend to prefer the use of these products in their tea or coffee or to consume products containing them. Before you reach for a packet or dump all your unused ones in the bin, let us examine the facts.

The term sugar substitutes can be confusing. Some labels may carry the word “natural” when the product has been processed or refined, as in the case of Stevia. Some artificial sweeteners may be derived from sucralose, which comes from sucrose or sugar, as in the case of Splenda.

Artificial sweeteners are widely used in a number of processed foods, including candy, sodas, chocolate, jams and jellies, puddings and dairy products. Some may leave a telltale after taste in your mouth, so you may have to try a few to find the one you like best.

The benefits of artificial sweeteners

Weight control – the main appeal of these sweeteners. They have no calories, as compared to a teaspoon of regular sugar which contains 16 calories.

Diabetes management – artificial sweeteners do not raise blood sugar levels the way sugar does, so they may be a good alternative to sugar. However, because of the ambiguous labeling of ingredients, you should check with your doctor or dietitian before using these products.

Health concerns with artificial sweeteners

Cancer – this has been the number one concern with the use of artificial sweeteners since the 70s when a study linked saccharin to bladder cancer in rats. Subsequently, all products containing saccharin had to carry a warning that it was hazardous to your health. Later studies revealed that there was no scientific evidence that artificial sweeteners cause cancer, and the warning was removed. Artificial sweeteners have been given the GRAS (generally regarded as safe) approval by the Food and Drug Administration, which says it is safe for use in limited quantities, even for pregnant women.

Sugar alcohols – these occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, but they can be manufactured. Sugar alcohols are not used in the home, but they are present in processed foods, such as chocolate, frozen desserts, chewing gum, mouthwash and toothpaste. These sugar alcohols are lower in calories than regular sugar and less sweet, making them an attractive sugar substitute. However, they may cause gas, bloating and diarrhea. Sugar alcohols do not contain ethanol.

From the above, it may appear that artificial sweeteners are largely harmless if consumed in moderation. However, a recent study undertaken by Susan E Swithers, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., revealed that consumption of artificial sweeteners can lead to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. Researchers found that the use of artificial sweeteners interferes with the pleasure centers in the brain making the body think it’s getting sugar and calories when it is not. As a result, the brain will prevent the release of important hormones like GLP – 1 which helps to regulate blood sugar, food intake and also has cardio-protective benefits.

The American Beverage Association has refuted these claims by Ms. Swithers, calling it an opinion piece and not a scientific study. They say that artificial sweeteners have been proven safe and effective in weight management. Ms. Swithers countered by saying that her paper was published in a scientific journal that routinely publishes papers by scientific experts like herself.

Natural sweeteners

These include date sugar, maple syrup, honey and molasses. Are these more healthful than artificial sweeteners or regular sugar? They are promoted as such, but they often undergo processing and refining. The use of sugars, natural or otherwise, can lead to obesity, tooth decay and increased triglycerides. Even honey can lead to botulism toxin and should not be given to children under one year old. So-called low-calorie foods, including some “sugar-free” foods, may contain ingredients loaded with calories that can cause weight gain. Your best option is to choose whole fruits and vegetables and avoid processed foods as much as possible.

Angela Joseph