The skinny on fake sugars: Artificial sweeteners are among the most bitterly debated substances ever added to foods and beverages. Here is a spoonful of information on the safety of sugar substitutes
Sugar. We love it -- maybe a little too much.
Though we know that an excess of the sweet stuff can lead to obesity, diabetes and other health problems, we can't ignore our sweet tooth. Instead, we've turned to an ever-growing plethora of "no-sugar-added" or sugar-free products, many sweetened with the five FDA-approved artificial "non-nutritive" additives -- acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, saccharin and sucralose.
Even as we gulp them down, many of us don't understand artificial sweeteners, according to Shape Up America!, a non-profit group fighting obesity. For instance, 30 per cent of the people recently surveyed by the group thought saccharin still carried a cancer-warning label (it doesn't), 77 per cent believed aspartame has been deemed safe for all (it hasn't), and 27 per cent thought Splenda was a natural product (it's synthetic).
Safety looms as one of the sweeteners' biggest controversies, with manufacturers, health-care professionals and consumer advocates often divided over their use.
Studies, too, show mixed results. For instance, a recent Italian study noted an increase in cancer in rats fed aspartame. However, a U.S. National Cancer Institute study in early April showed more than 500,000 U.S. men and women had no increased incidence of cancer after drinking aspartame-sweetened beverages.
Tara Gidus, a dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, believes artificial sweeteners to be "absolutely safe .. they basically pass through the body undigested."
But there is this caveat: "Basically every person is an individual and will react to anything differently. ... I absolutely believe it when someone tells me aspartame gives them a headache. And I say, fine, don't have it."
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a watchdog research group in Washington, D.C., points to studies that show acesulfame potassium, aspartame and saccharin might cause cancer. He says research independent of the additives' manufacturers is needed, and that consumers shouldn't sacrifice good nutrition to chemically satisfy a need for sweets.
On its website (cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm), the centre says sucralose and neotame appear to be safe, aspartame may pose a risk, and acesulfame potassium and saccharin should be avoided.
Here, we look at the real thing -- sugar -- and what are known as the "non-nutritive" artificial sweeteners.
Known as: Table sugar
What it is: A carbohydrate that results from extensive processing of sugar cane and sugar beets.
How sweet it is: It's the gold standard to which artificial sweeteners are measured.
Found in: Everything from sodas and baked goods to fast-food milkshakes.
Calories: About 16 per teaspoon.
The scoop: Sugar is a valuable energy source -- a body fuel that is easily broken down into glucose and fructose. However, excess sucrose can lead to weight gain and tooth decay, and must be closely regulated in diabetics, who have limited ability to process sugars. Dietitians recommend watching the intake of sucrose and eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables that are sources of carbohydrates.
Known as: Neotame
What it is: This is a derivative of phenylalanine and aspartic acid. However, studies show it poses no danger to those with an inherited sensitivity to phenylketonuria, a genetic disorder characterized by an inability of the body to utilize the essential amino acid, phenylalanine.
How sweet it is: 8,000 times sweeter than table sugar.
Found in: Cereals, diet snack bars, beverages, chewing gum, baked goods, frozen desserts.
The scoop: Almost 150 studies have shown the additive, approved in 2002, to be non-toxic. It's partially absorbed by the body, and though it may be present in blood plasma after ingestion, studies show it has no effect on blood glucose or insulin levels. It can enhance flavour and is often found in foods with other artificial sweeteners, such as acesulfame potassium.
Known as: Ace K, Sweet One, Sunett
What it is: Acetoacetic acid, an organic acid, is combined with potassium to form the sweetener.
How sweet it is: 200 times sweeter than table sugar.
Found in: Candy, chewing gum, gelatin, soft drinks, syrup, frozen desserts, baked goods.
The scoop: The FDA approved acesulfame potassium in 1988. Although 90 studies have shown it safe, the Center for Science in the Public Interest calls early testing mediocre and too brief, and says two of the studies suggest this additive could cause cancer. Research shows it is not metabolized or stored in the body. It retains its sweetness in baking at normal temperatures, and is often used in combination with other sweeteners.
Known as: Splenda.
What it is: This product, approved by the FDA in 1998, is the result of a chemical reaction between sugar and chlorine.
How sweet it is: 500 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar.
Found in: Table packets, desserts, dairy products, canned fruits, syrups, baked goods.
The scoop: More than 110 studies have confirmed the safety of sucralose as a food additive. Though it was advertised as "made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar," critics say it is a synthetic chemical. The CSPI calls it safer than acesulfame potassium and saccharin, but Citizens for Health, an advocacy group, recently asked the FDA to suspend sales because of adverse reactions that include headaches, gastrointestinal complaints and rashes. It is not metabolized by the body.
Known as: Sweet'N Low, Sugar Twin
What it is: The result of a chemical process that produces sodium saccharin.
How sweet it is: 300 to 500 times sweeter than table sugar.
Found in: Table packets, baked goods, jams, chewing gum, vitamins, canned fruit, candy, salad dressings, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals.
The scoop: Saccharin, discovered in 1879, had "generally recognized as safe" status until the early 1970s, when studies suggested it might be linked to bladder cancer in rats. Though more recent studies have exonerated this additive, the CSPI remains unconvinced it is safe, pointing out that other studies link saccharin to cancer of the uterus, ovaries, skin and other organs. It is not metabolized by the body.
Known as: NutraSweet, Equal
What it is: A combination of aspartic acid and phenylalanine that is metabolized by the body as a protein. It was approved by the FDA in 1981. Because it contains phenylalanine, people with phenylketonuria, a rare hereditary disease, must control their intake.
How sweet it is: 160 to 200 times sweeter than table sugar.
Found in: Table packets, soft drinks, syrup, yogurt, pudding and powdered mixes. Soft drinks make up 70 per cent of U.S. aspartame consumption.
Calories: four calories per gram.
The scoop: Some health-care providers have attributed consumption of aspartame to such conditions as migraines, muscle aches, dizziness and metabolic illnesses, though no scientific studies have found such links. Although several studies suggested aspartame consumption might increase the incidence of brain cancer, more than 200 others have found it safe.
SOURCES: American Dietetic Association; Center for Science in the Public Interest; National Cancer Institute; Aspartame Information Center; Food and Drug Administration; Sentinel research