Mary Poppins may have sworn by a spoonful of sugar, but today she’d be spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting a sweetener. But, asks Scott Josephson, do you know what you’re getting when you click that dispenser or tear open that little packet?
In recent years, as people attempt to cut down on carbohydrates and sugar, the sales of artificial sweeteners have increased significantly, along with the range available. Some people worry about these sweeteners, possibly because of the ‘artificial’ prefix. So, have you ever wondered what’s in them or been stuck for an answer when someone asks for your opinion?
Sugar substitutes exist in a greater array than ever, and include sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame k (Sweet and Safe), neotame (Sunett) and Stevia. In addition, there’s the old familiar aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet’n Low) and the sugar alcohols (xylitol). All these have undergone lifespan laboratory testing in rats, and short-term human studies for toxicity, metabolism, reproductive safety and pharmokenetic usage (what the body does to the drug, as opposed to vice versa).
These ‘non-nutritive’ sweeteners provide intense sweetening power, extremely low calories, no energy and no effect on your insulin levels. In 1961, the international Joint Committee on Food Additives introduced a formula known as the Adequate Daily Intake (ADI). This is still currently used to determine the safety consumption of artificial sweeteners that would cause no adverse effect if consumed on a daily basis for a lifetime. So, before you tear open that little packet of sweetener and stir it into your coffee or tea, let the debate begin!
Sucralose, also known as Splenda, is three chlorine molecules (yes, chlorine) that replace three hydroxol groups on the sugar molecule. It passes through the body unabsorbed during digestion, and is excreted in urine. It is 600 times sweeter than table sugar, yet contains no calories. Food Standards Australia New Zealand approved it as a general-purpose sweetener in 1993 (1996 in New Zealand).
The little yellow packets carry the tagline ‘made from sugar so it tastes like sugar’, which some consumers and health professionals have interpreted as meaning that sucralose is less of a chemical than other artificial sweeteners. Sucralose has a long shelf life and does not break down in high heat. It is used in products from cereal to yoghurt that use high heat to manufacture. The success of sucralose has left its rivals struggling: it enjoys an almost 50 per cent share of the sweetener market. The Adequate Daily Intake (ADI) for sucralose is five milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.
Aspartame, also known as Equal, is a chemical combination of aspartic acid, methanol and phenylalanine. It is two hundred times sweeter than table sugar and contains four calories per gram. It was approved for use in Australia in 1982, a year after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it as a general-purpose sweetener. It has a list of reported side effects. Aspartic acid and methanol occur naturally in tomato juice and skim milk at fairly high rates. When released at 20 degrees Celsius, aspartame breaks down to diketopiperazine and loses stability for baking. Additionally, it carries a warning label for people with phenylketonurics (PKU), a rare genetic condition usually diagnosed at birth. These individuals lack the ability to process one of the amino acids in aspartame. For everyone else it’s safe according to exhaustive research and reviews by the FDA, the World Health Organization and other authorities.
Rumours have run wild that aspartame causes headaches, dizziness, brain tumours and almost every disease in the book, but there’s no data to back these unsubstantiated claims. It’s used in products worldwide, and currently has around 24 per cent of the market share. The ADI for aspartame is fifty milligrams per kilogram of body weight, which is substantially higher than most other sweeteners.
Saccharin, also known as Sweet’n Low, is a combination of sodium, nitrogen and a hydrogen dioxide molecule that is 300 times sweeter than table sugar and contains no calories. It is extremely high heat stable, and suitable for use in cooking and baking. Similar to sucralose, it passes through the body unabsorbed during digestion and is excreted in urine. Saccharin has been used to sweeten foods and beverages since 1900, and has been approved for use in the US since 1970. In 1977 a US ban was placed on saccharin based upon animal research that suggested it was a weak bladder carcinogen. In the study, researchers administered unrealistically high doses of saccharin, equivalent to seven hundred cans of soft drinks or ten thousand tablets per day, every day, for a lifetime. The largest human study in the United States showed no overall association between saccharin consumption and cancer. In addition, the current research indicates the mechanism that causes cancer when high levels of saccharin are consumed is unique to male rats and not relevant to humans. The FDA lifted the ban in 2002, as saccharin is used in numerous products worldwide. The ADI for saccharin is fifteen milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.
Stevia is a herb-derived sugar substitute that is widely used in South America and Japan, but the US FDA is not convinced of its safety. Three hundred times sweeter than sugar, Stevia has a liquorice-type aftertaste. Additionally, it contains no calories and is unabsorbed by the body. It is often used by diabetics and has no effects on blood glucose.
Unlike the other ‘artificial’ sweeteners it is naturally grown in plant form. In 1986 the FDA banned it as an unsafe food additive, but under the dietary supplement act it is sold as a supplement in packet form. It can’t be labelled as a sweetener or added to commercially processed foods in the United States, Canada or Europe. In Australia, steviol glycosides (compounds of the stevia plant) were made available in 2008. There are several health claims and possible concerns regarding potential carcinogenic properties, fertility issues, and carbohydrate metabolism with long-term use, but there is currently insufficient data to set tolerable upper limits or an ADI requirement. There is a lot of talk on the web promoting stevia as the sweetener of the future, but as always the choice is ours.
Evidently, when it comes to choice of sweetening agents, we’re not left wanting. Whether you opt for an artificial sweetener or a natural sweetener like stevia or sugar, may actually come down to personal perception rather than fact, i.e. a preference for either natural or man-made. Various sweeteners are composed of chlorine, some are made with sodium, nitrogen and hydrogen and others are made of methanol, aspartic acid and phynelalinine. This list of ‘ingredients’ may be enough to dissuade some people from choosing them.
Consuming artificial sweeteners does have the downside of ingesting chemicals, but for the most part the body excretes the remains. And while many studies have identified carcinogenic properties associated with certain sweeteners if ingested in high quantities and for long durations, normal daily usage has not been proved to hold health dangers. It is also worth remembering that although a teaspoon of sugar contains only sixteen calories (and has been around for even longer than us!), it has also been associated with health issues when consumed in large quantities. Considering these potential downsides of both natural and artificial sweeteners, your best option may be to encourage clients to reduce their sweet tooth dependency by making sweet treats exactly that – an occasional treat, rather than a daily habit.
Scott Josephson, MS, RD
Scott is the director of operations at Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida. A registered dietitian, he presents at conferences throughout North America and has received numerous awards including the 2005 Director of the Year for Teaching Excellence and the 2010 Specialty Presenter of the Year for Can-Fit-Pro. Scott is on the international advisory boards for Can-Fit-Pro and American Fitness Professionals and Associates and has worked with numerous sports celebrities.