Are artificial sweeteners a safe sugar alternative?

Sugar - we want it, we love it and we crave it. But as most of us know, extra sugar leads to extra calories, which could lead to extra weight gain. Eating too much sugar not only affects your weight, but it also impacts blood sugar levels, which affects diabetes control. Excessive sugar intake also impacts blood sugar even in people who don’t have diabetes, as it affects energy levels and hunger and fullness cues throughout the day. High sugar intake is also linked to higher rates of dental cavities.

There are many alternative sweeteners out there, such as Saccharin (often found in pink packets); aspartame (often found in blue packets); sucralose (often found in yellow packets); stevia; sugar alcohols (often used as additives in sugar-free foods); honey; and agave syrup. Saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, and stevia are considered “non-nutritive” sweeteners; basically, they provide sweetness similar to sugar with virtually no calories. Sugar alcohols, honey, and agave syrup do contain calories and carbohydrates, which means that they also impact blood glucose levels.

There is much controversy regarding the safety of artificial sweeteners. There are multiple published reports, particularly on the Internet, claiming that artificial sweeteners cause a variety of health problems, including cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, however, there is no scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the United States cause cancer. Numerous studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are safe for the general population, although they really don’t provide any good nutritional value.

Aspartame, in particular, does need a caution. It is not safe for people who have the hereditary disease phenylketonuria (PKU). Products containing aspartame must carry a PKU warning on the label. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved aspartame, saccharin, Acesulfame K, and sucralose for use in foods. They have also established an “acceptable daily intake” (ADI) for each sweetener, which is the maximum amount considered safe to eat each day during your lifetime. The ADI ranges from the equivalent of six cans of diet soda per day (with sucralose) to nine to 12 packets per day of saccharin.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of cooking with artificial sweeteners. I think sometimes it almost gives a false sense that the food is healthier, and it may not be. Also, many people have the tendency to think if the cookies are sugar-free, maybe they can have more of them. My personal preference is to use real sugar in cooking, experimenting with each recipe individually to see if a smaller amount of sugar can be used. Then, we need to include those real sugar-containing foods as an occasional treat, not an every day occurrence.

The bottom line is to use artificial sweeteners sensibly, if at all. There is little evidence that artificial sweeteners help with weight loss. It is okay to occasionally have that can of diet soda, but it shouldn’t be the only beverage that you drink. We all need to focus on increasing water intake and using artificially sweetened drinks as an occasional treat. Consider trying water with a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, or seltzer with a splash of orange or cranberry juice. And remember to enjoy sweets as occasional treats mixed into an overall healthy diet, while including regular physical activity.

Angie Tillman is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and director of the Blount Memorial Wight Management Center.

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