Artificial Sweeteners- are they good for you?

Written by Dr Harold Gunatillake –Health writer

Natural sugar in excess in any delicious food like ice cream, fruit salads, pudding and cakes, among others, can turn 'poisonous' in your body. It contains extra calories, cause stress on insulin secretion from the pancreas gland, adds to your weight problem, and partly becomes dependant on it- that 'sweet tooth' you refer to. People are in search of sugar substitutes, and there is many of it. Which one will you choose to be compatible with your taste buds?

Some of these artificial sweeteners are:

  • Aspartame (Equal)
  • Acesulfame potassium
  • Saccharin (Sugar Twin)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Neotame

Most people having weight problems seem to start on artificial sweeteners to drop a few calories. For most people diet tend to fail due to a lack of self-control and the desire to indulge oneself, and the most' trigger food' that contain excess calories are foods high in sugar content. Artificial sweeteners seem to provide people trying to watch their figure with an escape for their sweet tooth. On the other hand, artificial sweeteners may lead to weight gain and abnormal insulin response when consumed according to some studies on rats.

One benefit of artificial sweeteners is that they don't contribute to tooth decay and cavities, unlike natural sugar.

Natural sugar contributes to weight problems. Each gram of regular table sugar contains 4 calories. 12 ounces can of a sweetened cola contain 8 teaspoonfuls of added sugar, or about 130 calories. So, one of the appealing aspect of artificial sweeteners, being non-nutritive, is that you would not put on weight, virtually has no calories.

Diabetes: Artificial sweeteners may be a good alternative to sugar if you have diabetes. Being not carbohydrates the artificial sweeteners do not raise blood sugar levels.

Concerns: Critics of artificial sweeteners say that they cause a variety of health problems, including cancer. Saccharin was linked to bladder cancer studies dating to the 1970s.

But according to the National Cancer Institute in US and other health authorities there is no sound scientific evidence that any artificial sweeteners approved for the use in US. cause cancer or other serious health problems.

Studies have been conducted on the safety of several artificial sweeteners, including saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, neotame, and cyclamate.

Equal, NutraSweet
This sweetener is available in most coffee shops on the table round the world and is quite popular. It's added to drinks, gum, yoghurt, cough drops. It has no calories. The chemical in it is Aspartame. Aspartame has been accused of causing everything from weight gain to cancer.

However, since being approved by the FDA in 1981, studies have found no convincing evidence and the FDA, the World Health Organization, and the American Dietetic Association say aspartame in moderation poses no threats. People with the disease phenylketonuria an inherited disorder should avoid aspartame.

In 2005, a laboratory study found more lymphomas and leukemias in rats fed very high doses of aspartame (equivalent to drinking 8 to 2,083 cans of diet soda daily) (1). However, there were some inconsistencies in the findings. For example, the number of cancer cases did not rise with increasing amounts of aspartame as would be expected. An FDA statement on this study can be found at on the Internet.

Subsequently, NCI examined human data from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study of over half a million retirees. Increasing consumption of aspartame-containing beverages was not associated with the development of lymphoma, leukemia, or brain cancer

High Fructose corn-syrup
This popular syrup in the Western world is not available in the Sri Lankan super-markets. It has 17 calories per teaspoon, founded mostly added to sodas, desserts and cereals.

It is obvious that beverages sweetened with high fructose corn-syrup may contribute to obesity, if regularly consumed. It is advised to limit its consumption.
Some consider it is a good alternative to natural sugar as there are fewer calories.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a calorie-providing sweetener used to sweeten foods and beverages, particularly processed and store-bought foods. It is made by an enzymatic process from glucose syrup that is derived from corn. A relatively new food ingredient, it was first produced in Japan in the late 1960s, and then entered the American food supply system in the early 1970s. HFCS is a desirable food ingredient for food manufacturers because it is equally as sweet as table sugar, blends well with other foods, helps foods to maintain a longer shelf life, and is less expensive than other sweeteners. It can be found in a variety of food products including soft drinks, salad dressings, ketchup, jams, sauces, ice cream and even bread. In Sri Lanka, it is a common site on the way-side hotels to boil fresh corn and given to eat as a meal. - has low calories and a good substitute to fill the stomach a healthy substitute to rice.

Sucralase (Splenda)
Displayed as a "table-top sweetener in coffee shops. It is commonly added to packaged foods and beverages. It is 600 times as sweet as sugar it is pleasantly tasty in hot and cold teas, but may have a metallic taste after. Splenda is using in baking mixed with sugar, as in cookies.

People with a rare condition known as phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot break down phenylalanine, so it can accumulate to toxic levels; thus, people with PKU must avoid all foods containing phenylalanine, including aspartame.

Sucralase have been known to impair the functioning of thyroid glands. Additionally, artificial sweeteners are recognized by the body as foreign substances and are therefore metabolized differently, making your liver and kidney function more than they would normally do.

Saccharine is the oldest of the non-nutritive sweeteners and has been in use for about 50 years. Saccharine is 300-400 times as sweet as sugar. It is heat stable and can therefore be used for cooking and baking. Another advantage is that it has a long shelf life. Unfortunately, saccharine has a slightly bitter metallic aftertaste, so it is often combined with other non-nutritive sweeteners. In 1977, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA placed a ban on the use of saccharine because animal research implicated saccharine as a weak carcinogen that caused bladder cancer in rats. This ban was withdrawn in 1991. The use of saccharine by pregnant women and young children should be limited. The current recommendation for saccharine intake is 500 mg for children/day and 1000 mg for adults/day.

Safe use of artificial sweeteners
Many sweeteners are chemicals, and would not occur naturally in food. It is therefore advised that sweeteners be used in moderation. Remember that you may be consuming large amounts of sweetener in 'diet' or low sugar cool drinks, jellies, sweets and biscuits, as well as flavoured mineral water. If you add up the total amount of sweetener used in these foods and drinks, as well as that added to tea, coffee etc., your total daily intake of sweetener may be quite high.

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