You sit down to a cup of coffee and wonder if you should sweeten it with what’s in the blue, pink, yellow or green packet.
There are now 6 artificial sweeteners approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They are known as high intensity sweeteners– food additives that add few to no calories.
A Brief History
Most of these products were discovered accidentally by chemists while they were working in their labs. Saccharin was discovered in 1879 after a chemist came to dinner, evidently without first washing his hands. The story goes that he licked his finger,
finding that it was really sweet. Saccharin was approved by the FDA in 1958 when the current approval process came into effect. Brand names are Sweet ‘N Low, Sweet Twin, Necta Sweet and Sweet and Low. Aspartame (Brand names: Equal, Nutrasweet, Sugar Twin) was accidentally discovered in 1965 and approved in 1981. Acesulfame potassium (alias acesulfame K or Ace K)
was discovered in 1967 and approved in 1988. Brand names are Sunette and Sweet One. Then came sucralose (Splenda) approved in 1998, neotame in 2002 and advantame in 2018. In addition to these manmade products, FDA has approved two plant based high intensity sweeteners. Truvia, Pure Via and Enliten are products extracted from the stevia plant, a native of South America. Stevia has been used in Japan as a sweetener for over 20 years. The other is Luo Han Huo or monk fruit, from Southern China and marketed as
Nectresse, Monk Fruit in the Raw, and Pure Lo.
What they have in common
They are all super sweet– 100s or 1000s of times sweeter than sugar, so they are consumed in such tiny amounts that they do not contribute any calories. In that respect, they should help with weight loss and preventing diseases associated with obesity.
spartame is not heat stable, so cannot be used in cooking. It contains an amino acid, phenylalanine that cannot be consumed by individuals with a rare condition, phenylketonuria (PKU). Some people complain of headaches from eating or drinking foods with aspartame.
How much is safe?
The FDA reviews studies on humans and animals to determine if there are toxic effects and then sets Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADIs). A packet of a high intensity sweetener is considered to be equal to 2 packets of sugar. The following ADIs are for a 132 lb
Aspartame: 75 pkts
Ace K, sucralose and neotame: 23 pkts
Saccharin: 45 pkts
Advantame: 4,920 pkts
Stevia: 9 pkts
Monk Fruit: No ADI set
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that, "consumers can safely enjoy a range of nutritive sweeteners and non-nutritive sweeteners when consumed within an eating plan that is guided by current federal nutrition recommendations."
And, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association recommend they should be used “judiciously” as a way to reduce sugar intake.
Why is there controversy?
Despite studies showing that these additives are safe, along with leading health organizations condoning their use, controversy remains. High intensity sweeteners have been used for long enough that researchers can collect data to learn if they’ve helped people lose weight. It turns out that the data doesn’t back this claim up. In fact, these sweeteners are associated with obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and heart problems.
One of the reasons may be related to a relatively new area of nutrition research involving the microbiome (the millions of bacteria living in our intestines). Now that scientists have learned how important these bacteria are to our health, they are
studying what happens when we eat or don’t eat certain things. It was discovered that some of the high intensity sweeteners disrupt the balance and diversity of these bacteria, which may contribute to increased body weight, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.
The bottom line
Limit the use of high intensity sweeteners, but remember that nutritive sweeteners like sugar, honey and syrup need limits, as well. The healthiest way to go? Satisfy your sweet tooth with 2-3 servings of fruit a day.