Are Artificial Sweeteners Harmful or Helpful?

October 5, 2017

By Debbie Herbst, RD, LD, CDE
Mercy Hospital Carthage

Do you use the “pink” stuff or stick with good old white sugar? Do you think honey is natural and healthy? Does diet pop make you crave sweets? Which is better: diet pop or regular pop? Do artificial sweeteners cause cancer?

Is what you believe based on fact or fiction?

Sweeteners add flavor and texture to foods. Nutritive sweeteners are found naturally in fruits, vegetables, milk and yogurt. These foods taste naturally sweet and provide many important vitamins and minerals.

Another kind of nutritive sweeteners, like honey, sugar, corn syrup or sugar alcohols, can be added to foods and drinks. These added sweeteners can add a lot of empty calories. Americans take in an average of 13.4 percent of calories in added sugars; however, the recommended goal is less than 10 percent.

Non-nutritive sweeteners are another name for artificial sweeteners. This means they have no calories. Non-nutritive sweeteners approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) are aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), saccharin (Sweet and Low), sucralose (Splenda) and Stevia (Truvia, Pure Via). Other approved sweeteners are Neotame and acesulfame K.

The flavor added by these non-nutritive sweeteners may result in consuming fewer empty calories. In turn, this may help with weight loss and reduce other health problems caused by eating and drinking too much sugar.

However, who has not heard about claims of terrible side effects caused by non-nutritive sweeteners? While it’s true that individuals may experience problems with food or drink of any kind, the safety and benefits of non-nutritive sweeteners have been researched extensively. Studies have been done across the world that support their safety.

Dr. Allen Barclay, a speaker at the American Association of Diabetes Educators, coined the term “food terrorism.” This describes the media’s role in misusing scientific studies and writing scary articles with catchy titles.

In turn, people mistrust regulatory groups like the World Health Organization and the FDA. The public can be led to think that these scientists who carefully do research are not honest or ethical. Millions of dollars have been spent to fund research to protect consumers from ingredients that could be harmful.

The good news is that non-nutritive sweeteners are safe when taken in conservative amounts over a lifetime. This amount is called the acceptable daily intake (ADI). For example, the ADI of Splenda (yellow pack) is about 28 packs per day for a 150-pound adult. The ADI of Stevia (green pack) is nine packs per day. Does this mean you should consume that much? Not necessarily, but there are no known health risks for daily intake of that amount.

Studies show no relationship between non-nutritive sweeteners and increasing body weight or causing sweet cravings. Instead, the results of hundreds of research studies using artificial sweeteners in place of sugar was helpful in lowering calorie intake and lowering body weight.

Remember, the point is to eat and drink less sugar, sweets and sweetened drinks. When people drink too much pop or sweet tea and eat a lot of sweets, they have in increased risk of getting type 2 diabetes. In addition, the risk is higher for high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

What should you do? First, drink water — at least 64 ounces daily. Flavored water is a great choice. If you drink regular pop, sweetened tea or other sweetened drinks, start cutting down.

Second, try low-calorie sweetener in place of sugar in tea or coffee. If you don’t like the yellow packets, try the green packets.

If your love is pop, try different brands made with different artificial sweeteners. Try different products and sweeteners until you find one that you like. Some artificial sweeteners taste bitter if you use too much or if you put them in hot drinks like coffee or tea.

Third, choose a banana or an apple in place of a cookie. Eat fruited yogurt for breakfast instead of a donut. Instead of snacking on candy, snack on grapes. A few simple changes can add up to big changes in your health.

The next time that you read or hear a sensational claim, like “carrots are full of sugar,” think about it. Does it make common sense? Who is writing the article or making the claim? Are there any facts to back up the claim? Be wise and make informed health choices.

Mercy clinical nutrition dietitians at Mercy Hospital Carthage on the McCune-Brooks Campus, 3125 Dr. Russell Smith Way, can be reached at 417-359-1359.