Hy-Vee at Midday: Artificial Sweeteners
By Julie Gallagher, Hy-Vee Dieitian
Americans have a serious sweet tooth and rely on foods and beverages using artificial sweeteners to satisfy the yen for sweetness without packing on the pounds. But along with the expanding number of artificial sweeteners comes consumer confusion. What are artificial sweeteners? Are they safe and healthy alternatives to sugar? With so many on the market today, is there one artificial sweetener that is better than the rest?
What are they?
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes but may be derived from naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar itself. They virtually add no calories to your diet and you need only a fraction compared with the amount of sugar you would normally use for sweetness. They are widely used in processed foods and beverages marketed as “sugar-free” or “diet,” including baked goods, soft drinks, chewing gum, powdered drink mixes, candy, puddings, jams and jellies, ice cream and yogurt, fruit juice, and many more.
Many artificial sweeteners are also popular for home use such as baking or cooking. Certain recipes may need modification as the sweeteners provide no bulk or volume, as does sugar. Check the labels on artificial sweeteners for appropriate home use. Some artificial sweeteners may leave an aftertaste.
Are they safe and healthy alternatives to sugar?
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), artificial sweeteners are safe. Sweeteners fall under the 'generally recognized as safe' list of foods or food additives. In order to be declared safe, there must be sufficient evidence that the product is safe when consumed in normal portions. The National Cancer Institute says that there is no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems.
One of the most appealing aspects of artificial sweeteners is that people use them to slash calories and prevent weight gain as they have virtually no calories. For example a diet cola has zero calories compared to a 12-ounce can of sweetened cola containing 130 calories. However, health experts worry that we are over-consuming artificial sweeteners which may increase our demand for super sweet foods and beverages. The problem is, experts say, is that the natural sweetness from fruit pales in comparison and may not satisfy our desire for sweets. In addition, some studies have shown that sweetness in the absence of calories may stimulate overeating.
Artificial sweeteners may also be a good alternative to sugar if you have diabetes. Unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners generally don’t raise blood sugar levels because they are not carbohydrates. But because of concerns about how sugar substitutes are labeled and categorized, always check with your doctor or dietitian about using any sweeteners if you are diabetic.
Are all artificial sweeteners the same?
All of the artificial sweeteners are virtually calorie free and approved as safe by the FDA. Below are some popular ones.
Aspartame (Equal or NutraSweet) – The little blue packet contains two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It is 180-200 times sweeter than sugar. Considered a general purpose sweetener, it is used mainly for beverages but is also included in some diet colas and desserts. The only caution is that it should not be consumed by anyone with phenylketonuria (PKU). The FDA maintains it is safe despite rumors that it may cause cancer. One gram of Aspartame contains four calories.
Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low) – Comes in the little pink package and is made from benzoic sulfinide. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar. One of the original artificial sweeteners, it is less expensive and stable at high temperatures so it can be used in baking. Saccharin is found in diet beverages, baked goods and some dietetic products but is primarily used to sweeten foods and beverages at the table. Early studies linked it to cancer but more than 30 human studies found saccharin safe for human consumption. It has zero calories.
Sucralose (Splenda) – Found in the little yellow packet and made from a sugar molecule that is chemically altered. This is a very popular table top sweetener that is also found in drinks, foods, juices and more. It holds up to high temperatures better than other sugar substitutes and has little impact on blood sugar levels. It is 600 times sweeter than table sugar and is not fully absorbed so may cause abdominal discomfort. Even though it is made from a sugar molecule, the final product is completely different. It has zero calories.
Stevia (Truvia, PureVia) – Is the latest addition to the artificial sweetener category although it has been around for centuries in other countries. Extracted from the stevia plant, it is promoted as natural although it is chemically extracted. It is commonly found in sweetener packets, sodas and protein drinks. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar so less can be used to achieve sweetness. Stevia can also be used in baking. It has zero calories.
When choosing artificial substitutes, it pays to be a savvy consumer by staying informed and looking beyond the hype. Consuming artificial sweeteners in moderation should be safe but the long-term health effects on the body are unknown. Nutrition experts recommend trimming your calories from your diet by replacing sweetened beverages with unsweetened or artificially sweetened beverages. Examples include; water, sparkling water, non-fat milk, unsweetened coffee and teas, 100% fruit juice (in limited amounts) and artificially sweetened beverages consumed in moderation (packet of your artificial sweetener in your coffee, a diet drink and a serving of diet pudding or ice cream). For healthy food ideas to satisfy your sweet tooth: stir fresh berries into light yogurt, sweeten oatmeal with chopped pears or peaches or top a whole-grain waffle with bananas instead of syrup. It is recommended that children and pregnant or breast feeling women should ask their doctor whether they should take an artificial sweetener.
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