Are Artificial Sweeteners Good For Your Health?

Are Artificial Sweeteners Good For Health?


No sugar in my tea… I shall take the sweetener instead! Lately, artificial sweeteners are being preferred over sugar due to the common belief that sugar makes us gain weight and increases risk of diabetes. It is also considered as a fashion statement to use sweeteners with celebrity chefs and models assuring us that we can still enjoy the chocolate brownie or gajar halwa if we add artificial sweetener to it. Is sugar truly the only faulty ingredient in these desserts? Did we try to rationalize whether this new alternative is any good; equally bad or even WORSE than sugar?

What are artificial sweeteners?

The web definition of artificial sweeteners reads thus “A sugar substitute is a food additive that duplicates the effect of sugar in taste, usually with less food energy”. Artificial sweeteners are those chemical substances that have sweet taste but provide lesser calories than table sugar (nutritive sweeteners) or no calories (non-nutritive sweeteners). These substances are either partially digested in the body or undigested and do not contribute to excessive calories. Most of the sweeteners are chemical compounds which the body does not recognize and/or metabolize. So they are either thrown out of the body or remain hidden in some tissues. In the long-term, these substances may keep accumulating and lead to various toxic effects.

What they contain?

A very wide range of artificial sweeteners are available in the market, often confusing the consumer about what to choose. We may usually go by marketing and popularity of the product rather than reading the label to see what it contains. Every sweetener has a characteristic sweetening agent which is of prime importance from health perspective. Let us understand some of the most common ones:

Saccharin: Saccharin, the oldest artificial sweetener, has been around since 1878 and under scrutiny since 1907. Saccharin does not convert to glucose and hence does not contribute to calories, which made it popular with diabetics and dieters. Beverages such as cola, tea and coffee have been generally sweetened with saccharin.

Side-effects: Studies on animal models have shown that saccharin increases risk of certain cancers.

Aspartame: Aspartame is different from other sweeteners because it is made from protein (phenyl alanine and aspartic acid). Unlike saccharin, it is digested and can be absorbed anywhere in the body. Aspartame breaks down in heat so is not useful in cooking or in many beverages.

Side-effects: A concern about aspartame is that people with genetic disorder phenyl ketnouria (PKU), cannot metabolize the amino acid- phenylalanine, which is present in aspartame. Also, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that aspartame triggers brain tumors, cancers, infertility, birth defects, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, depression, memory loss, vision loss, vertigo, etc.

Acesulfame K: Acesulfame K, also known as acesulfame potassium has no calories because it is not metabolized by the body. It is used in thousands of oral hygiene and pharmaceutical products, as well as foods and beverages, hard and soft candies, chocolate confections, chewing gum, baked goods, dairy products, carbonated drinks and alcoholic beverages.

Side effects: Acesulfame K contains methylene chloride. Long-term exposure to methylene chloride may lead to headaches, depression, nausea, mental confusion, liver effects, kidney effects, visual disturbances, and cancer in humans.

Sucralose: Sucralose, the sweet saviour of the 1990’s, is a drug/chemical which is about 600 times sweeter than sugar. Products to which sucralose is added include a variety of pharmaceuticals and children’s medications, vitamin supplements, protein powders, protein bars and weight loss products, liquid and powdered drinks, popcorn, gums and mints, toothpaste, and water.

Side-effects: Sucralose contains organo chlorine which is poisonous. It may be lethal because it allows poisons to be fat-soluble while rendering the natural defense mechanisms of the body helpless.

Stevia: Stevia is a non-caloric herb, native to Paraguay, which has been used as a sweetener for several years in South America and Japan. Stevia, being derived from natural leaf extract, is found to have anti-oxidant properties.

Side-effects: Besides having been in use for hundreds of years, extensive testing in animals has demonstrated no harmful effects.

Approximate Sweetening Power Compared to Sugar Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) ADI equivalent
Assuming average weight of 150 lbs
Brand names
Saccharin 300-500 times sweeter 15 mg/kg 8.5 packets of tabletop sweetener Sweet ‘N Low, Sweet Twin Necta Sweet
Aspartame 160-200 times sweeter 40 mg/kg 15, 12-oz cans of diet soda sweetened solely with aspartame NutraSweet, Equal Sugar Twin
Acesulfame K 200 times sweeter 9-15 mg/kg 25,12-oz cans of diet soda sweetened solely with ace-K Sunett, Sweet One, Sweet & Safe
Sucralose 600 times sweeter 5 mg/kg 5, 12-oz cans of diet soda sweetened solely with sucralose Splenda, sugar free Natura, Kaltame
Stevia 250 to 300 times sweetner 7.9 mg stevioside/kg BW SweetLeaf Stevia

IFIC: The Joint Commission of Experts on Food Additives (JECFA) of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Organization of Food and Agriculture (FAO), and the EFSA (the European Food Safety Agency)

There is a safe range established for the amount of artificial sweeteners that one can consume based on the individual’s body weight (see table). These limits are developed after testing for levels of safety beyond which they may cause damage. Except stevia, all the other sweeteners seem to increase risk of diseases such as cancer, infertility, kidney, and liver problems.

The word artificial itself tell us that it is not real – not natural! It is for us to reflect on whether we really want to expose our body to a substance that it does not know how to use or dispose. In this way, are we not inviting unnecessary trouble?

A teaspoon of sugar added to tea provides around 16 calories, the amount of calories that can be burnt by just walking for about 7 minutes. Besides, our body knows how to utilize these calories. Only if it is in excess of our requirements, then it will be stored as fat. It has been proven through research, that more often, it is the fats (oil, butter, margarine) in sweets/ desserts that are more harmful than the sugar alone. It is the combination of the two which exceeds our body’s energy needs and raises concern.

So instead of blaming the sugar and trying to shun it, we must learn to use it judiciously. We may also explore the other natural sweetening agents such as unrefined sugar, pure unrefined jaggery, honey, etc for our daily use in tea, desserts and other beverages.
© Pooja Singhania,PhD,RD,CDE

Author: drpoojachhawcharia

Dr Pooja Chhawcharia is the Senior Nutritionist at eKincare with over 7 years of experience in Nutrition education, diet counseling and research. She is a Registered Dietician with the Indian Dietetic Association and Certified Diabetes Educator recognized by the International Diabetes federation . She is also interested in ancillary sciences such as Yoga and Naturopathy.

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