During pregnancy, the mother’s diet becomes a top concern. Because excess sugar can lead to too much weight gain or aggravate gestational diabetes, many mothers-to-be wonder about the safety of alternative and artificial sweeteners as a substitute for sugar.
Artificial sweeteners are ingredients that replace sugar to add sweetness to foods without added calories. They are often found in products such as cookies, beverages and yogurt. In general, most of the sugar substitutes appear to be safe to use in moderation during pregnancy. Less than 2 to 3 servings a day is considered “moderation,” according to the American Pregnancy Association.
Saccharin (Sweet N’ Low, Sugar Twin)
Saccharin was one of the first artificial sweeteners on the market, and its safety has been called into question over the years. The FDA has determined that, as long as consumption is not excessive, saccharin is safe to use for the general public. Pregnant women, however, should avoid saccharin because it has been shown to be able to cross the placenta and remain in fetal tissue.
It is important to note that Sugar Twin made in the United States contains saccharin, while other countries, such as Canada, use cyclamate under the same name. Cyclamate is banned in the United States because of its link to cancer.
Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener made by combining two amino acids (the building blocks of protein). It has been studied in pregnancy, and has not been shown to have a link to increased risk of birth defects, but the FDA has recommended limiting consumption to a moderate level.
Products containing aspartame are easier to identify, because the FDA has mandated labeling because of a rare genetic condition called phenylketonuria, or PKU. Mothers to be who have this disorder must avoid one of the components of aspartame or risk significant harm to their babies.
Splenda is a non-caloric sweetener that is actually made from sugar. However, it has a chloride molecule attached, which makes it unable to be absorbed into the body. Sucralose is one of the few artificial sweeteners that is stable when heated, so it can be used in baking and cooking. The FDA has determined that sucralose is safe for pregnant and lactating women, and the American Academy of Family Physicians agrees with the recommendation.
Acesulfame-K (Sunnett, Sweet One)
This lesser-known artificial sweetener is used in beverages, frozen desserts and baked goods. It has been evaluated and is considered safe according to the FDA, although some groups have questioned the accuracy of the studies.
Stevia (PureVia and TruVia)
These newer products have been recently approved by the FDA for general use. The sweeteners are made from an extract of the South American herb called stevia, which was previously sold as a dietary supplement and not a food. Currently, it is not well studied for use in pregnancy or during breastfeeding. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends further testing before recommending its use.
Concerns Regarding All Artificial Sweeteners
The biggest concern of using most artificial sweeteners is that women who consume high amounts may be shorting their diet of other nutritious foods. Drinking a diet soda a day, for example, is not likely to cause harm, but if it is replacing healthier beverages, such as milk, water or 100% fruit juice, a mom-to-be may not be getting all of the nutrients a baby needs to thrive.