Artificial Sweeteners Dangers and Benefits

Jessica Lewis
September 26, 2016

The latter are more popularly known as artificial sweeteners. Judging by the fact that there are thousands of scientific studies conducted on them, people naturally assume that they are, to some extent, reliable. Moreover, if someone has any doubts about them, the U.S Food and Drug Administration has put sugar substitutes, be they natural or artificial, under the label of “generally recognized as safe”. Often times, people turn to artificial sweeteners because they want to reduce both the sugar and calories from the diet.

Still, their role can be rather confusing as some natural sweeteners like stevia are processed and refined. Also, certain artificial sweeteners have a natural source and are not entirely chemically treated like in the case of sucralose that comes from sugar. Currently, there are 6 artificial sweeteners approved by the Food and Drug Administration and used by people in their everyday lives. They are aspartame, acesulfame potassium, advantage, neotame, saccharin and sucralose. Glucin, an artificial sweetener similar to saccharin, is prohibited in the United States due to health concerns; countries outside the United States still use it. Cyclamate has been banned in 1969 but has yet to be prohibited by Europe and Asia.

Diabetes and Obesity

Diabetes and obesity are two of the many problems hundreds of millions of people all over the world suffer from. No exact cause leads to these medical conditions. Rather, they occur as the unfortunate consequence of various factors such as stress or unhealthy lifestyle. Some factors weight more than others. Much of today’s food products is full of additives, hormones or packed with sugar. More often than not, these substances can cause addiction. Cases when people confess they find it hard to stop themselves from consuming certain foods in large amounts are not rare.[1]

Sweets in particular are the most harmful in terms of weight gain and increased diabetes risk. Still, one finds it difficult to avoid them. People use them even when they feel sad or anxious. Like in many other situations, science comes to our help with its own ingenious solution. It is called sugar substitute and is not something new on the food market. Sugar substitutes are food additives that have a taste similar to that of sugar without containing its food energy. Some are natural like stevia or agave nectar. Others, like aspartame or saccharin are produced synthetically.[2]

People regard artificial sweeteners as healthy alternatives to sugar from various points of view. Firstly, they add little to no calories to one’s diet because they lack sugar’s food value. Secondly, they are many times as sweet as sugar so one only needs small quantities to compensate for lack of sugar in desserts or coffee. Some of them are efficient in home-made recipes as well but they do not offer the volume sugar does. The method may need modification in this case. People can find artificial sweeteners in restaurants as alternatives to sugar to add to coffee or tea. Many of today’s foods and beverages are labeled as “sugar-free” because their manufacturers add either artificial or natural sweetener in their composition. The food industry more notably uses them in bulks in jams, jellies, dairy product, puddings or candies. People prefer foods enriched with artificial sweeteners due to their low or non-caloric status.

Sugar substitutes, especially the artificial ones, may have an aftertaste following their consumption. In addition, they do not have the natural taste of sugar so after a while their users may be disturbed by this aspect.[3][4]

Health Benefits of Artificial Sweeteners

  1. Weight control

People usually use artificial sweeteners because of an obvious factor: they have little or no nutritional value. This means they do not contribute to the calorie intake because they contain none. It may sound weird, given that every food one knows must have calories. The particular thing about artificial sweeteners is that they are not food but only food additives. Calories are linked to the risk of weight gain but this happens only when there is an excessive amount of calories the body does not use so it stores it as fat deposits. Calories are a measure of energy released following the food digestion. When there is no such process, there is no energy to release or store either. This happens after the consumption of zero-calorie substances. Such is the case with artificial sweeteners.[5]

While they do react in a similar manner to that of sugar in regards to nervous system stimulation, they play different roles in the body’s structure. It has been scientifically proven that taste has nothing to do with calories. The sense can affect them only to the extent to which one wants to consume more from a particular food because it has an excellent taste. The sensation of sweetness is one of the most craved. It is the result of a molecule binding to specific receptors found in the taste buds and sending nervous impulses to the brain.[6]

The result is a taste that can be understood as sweet, sour, bitter or salty, according to the consumed food. The sensation is a consequence occurring at the tongue and nervous system levels and has nothing to do with whether that food’s molecules will be metabolized or not. Artificial sweeteners have this mechanism of action. Following ingestion, they bind to certain proteins found in the taste buds. For example, sucralose and saccharin bind to a protein that various researchers deem as the primary receptor for sweet substances. Therefore, there is no need for food to have caloric value in order for it to produce taste. Artificial sweeteners seem to be more practical than sugar in this regard. Nonetheless, some critics claim that artificial sweeteners can as will be related to the risk of weight gain. Further research is needed to reach a final conclusion.[7]

  1. Diabetes

Artificial sweeteners may be a good alternative to sugar in the case of patients suffering from diabetes. The disease is linked to high intakes of simple carbohydrates. Frequent consumption of foods containing sugar can lead to insulin resistance as the pancreas is forced to produce more of this substance to balance the sugar in the blood. The dose becomes inefficient at some point, even when in large quantities. The body becomes immune to the produced insulin and diabetes occurs. Artificial sweeteners are not classified as carbohydrates. They are similar to sugar only in terms of taste and imitate its manner of action in regards to the taste bud-nervous system impulse connection. Unlike sugar, they have little or no calories so the body does not have to metabolize them to produce energy. Also, the pancreas does not have to release insulin following the consumption of foods containing artificial sweeteners.[8]

  1. Dental Care

Artificial sweeteners can help reduce the sugar intake, the number one cause of tooth decay especially in children. Many sweets contain sucrose that encourages dental decay. This happens because some of the bacteria found inside the mouth produce acid when exposed to sugar. The bacteria usually release the acid for twenty minutes after the food was consumed. The acid eats into the teeth and leads to cavities. Unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners are not affected by the bacteria forming the dental plaque. Specialists in dental care recommend xylitol, a sugar alcohol that is not exactly an artificial sweetener. Xylitol is found in nature in almost every fruit and vegetable. It has anticarcinogenic properties and many experts in the domain regard it as beneficial for a good dental health.[9]

Side Effects

As in the case of many other substances, artificial sweeteners are not without controversy. There are supporters as well as critics because their benefits in regards to one’s health have not been studied long enough to reach a final conclusion. Moreover, there are artificial sweeteners on the food market that are currently banned by the U.S.  Food and Drug Administration or waiting for approval. Many of them are actively used in countries outside America in spite of potential side effects. In 2005, researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio had conducted a study on the artificial sweeteners’ effect on body weight. The participants were split into two groups and were given either diet drinks or naturally sweetened soda. At the end of the study, the participants who consumed diet soda gained more weight than those who drank naturally sweetened soda, despite artificial sweeteners’ status as non-caloric substances.

Another experiment, this time conducted on rats, showed how the rodents responded to artificial sweeteners. After being frequently fed with them, the rats were more likely to gain weight . This happened because the sweet taste of artificial sweeteners does induce an insulin response even if they do not raise the blood sugar levels.

Nevertheless, the National Cancer Institute affirms that none of the artificial sweeteners approved by the Food and Drug Administration causes cancer or any other severe medical condition. They are generally safe substances but people should consume them according to the acceptable daily intake established by the Food and Drug Administration.[10]

Artificial Sweeteners

The following are the most used artificial sweeteners at the present moment. Some of them, namely cyclamate and gluten, are not currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Individual countries outside the continental United States are yet to ban them. For this reason, they will be addressed together with the approved artificial sweeteners in the list below.

  1. Aspartame

Aspartame is a low-calorie artificial sweetener that is approximately 200 times sweeter than sucrose. The substance was discovered in 1965 by James M. Schlatter while working in his laboratory. The researcher accidentally spilled some aspartame in his hand and noticed the substance had a sweet taste. Currently distributed under the brand names “NutraSweet” and “Equal”, it has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration almost two decades, only after proper research projects have been conducted on it. Aspartame is derived from two amino acids, the aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It holds a special place among other artificial sweeteners because, following ingestion, the body breaks it down into its components. While the amino acids are found in larger quantities in animal products, fruits or vegetables, the body uses them in the same manner in which it uses the amino acids found in aspartame’s structure. Aspartame breaks down when is incorporated in cooked foods because it cannot stand high temperatures. Its use is limited to beverages. The World Health Organization and the American Dietetic Association state aspartame is safe if consumed in moderation, other international regulatory agencies have approved aspartame on their list of regulated substances.[11]

In spite all these factors, there are experiments and research projects pointing towards a lack of confidence in aspartame’s status as a reliable material. Studies done on animals in particular showed that aspartame could increase the risk of tumor occurrence. A 2005 study conducted on rats fed aspartame registered a higher number of lymphomas in the rodents. The tumors were numerous in male rats. Even so, many of the health organizations that support aspartame disregarded the result. This did not happen because there was insufficient evidence in regards to aspartame’s potential side effects. Rather, scientists concluded that a rat’s inner functions are not similar to those of man. In the absence of total resemblance, it would not be safe to assume that the results of experiments performed on animals are 100% applicable to humans. The aspartame’s effects on healthy children and adults as well as on patients suffering from particular medical condition must be studied more extensively. In the meantime, aspartame remains an active part in many foods and beverages.

  1. Acesulfame Potassium

Acesulfame potassium is another non-caloric artificial sweetener that has the same sweetness levels as aspartame. It is sweeter than both saccharin and sucralose. Like many other artificial sweeteners, acesulfame potassium is believed to have no calories because it is so sweet, it can be used in insignificant quantities, leading thus to almost zero calorie intakes.

The substance is sold under the brand names of “Sweet One” and “Sunett”, acesulfame potassium is a general purpose sweetener that can be used more extensively than aspartame in beverages and foods other than sweets. Unlike aspartame that cannot be incorporated in cooked foods, acesulfame potassium does not face such problem. It has excellent stability even when exposed to high temperatures and is soluble in most liquids. It has a slightly bitter aftertaste. Various manufacturers combine it with other artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or sucralose to mask it. Acesulfame potassium is currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Researchers have conducted numerous studied on its compounds and the substance’s mechanism of action before deeming it safe for general use. No present day study on acesulfame potassium shows potential health related risks.[12]

  1. Alitame

Alitame is an artificial sweetener developed by Pfizer in the early 1980s. it is sold in various countries around the globe, including Mexico, China or New Zeeland. The Food and Drug Administration included it on its list of banned substances due to improper research projects and insufficient evidence in regards to its health benefits. Alitame is considered a second generation artificial sweetener. The substance is 2000 times as sweet as sucrose and 10 times sweeter than aspartame which makes it extraordinarily sweet in comparison to most artificial sweeteners on the food market. It has no aftertaste. It is less stable than acesulfame potassium but more than aspartame.[13]

  1. Advantame

Advantame is a non-caloric sugar substitute produced by a Japan-based food and chemical corporation, namely the Ajinomoto Company. Aside from manufacturing pharmaceuticals, cooking oils or amino-acids, the company is also the world’s largest aspartame producer, with almost 40% global market share. As expected, advantame is derived from aspartame, with its other main components being isovanillin, an isomer of vanillin. The substance is incredibly sweet: about 20000 times sweeter than sugar and 100 times as sweet as aspartame. It has a higher degree of stability than aspartame which makes it suitable for baking and cooking. It has no aftertaste so there is no need to combine it with additional artificial sweeteners. Many health organizations regard advantame as a generally safe substance. The decision is the result of various studies conducted on advantame’s safety status.[14]

  1. Cyclamate

Cyclamate is an artificial sugar substitute currently not used on the United States territory due to its status as a banned substance. In the late 1960s, experiments done on animal subjects showed increased cancer risks in most of them. It is 30 times as sweet as sugar and its manufacturers usually combine it with other artificial sweeteners, saccharin in particular. It has a higher stability degree than most sugar substitutes and is cheaper than many of them. The United States and other 46 countries do not allow cyclamate use on their food markets. Even so, there are about 130 countries that have approved it as a safe substance. The World Health Organization’s Joint Experts Committee on Food Additives along with other health and safety organizations has performed experiments on cyclamate for over 50 years. The experts concluded that cyclamate is as safe as any other artificial sweetener if used in moderate quantities. [15]

  1. Glucin

Glucin is a sugar substitute similar to saccharin. It is a sodium salt derived from coal tar and contains mono- and di-sulfuric acids. The substance is 300 times sweeter than sugar. It is soluble in water due to its powdered form, but insoluble in ethanol or chloroform. Various countries allow it in foods enriched with artificial sweeteners. Glucin is banned on the United States territory due to its presence on the list of prohibited substance.

  1. Saccharin

Saccharin is an artificial sweetener with a history of more than 100 years. The substance was discovered in the late 1870s by Remsen and Fahlbers and synthesized afterward. It is 300 sweeter than sugar and has a slightly bitter aftertaste so it is often times combined with sweeteners that do not share this property. Saccharin is not used only in the food industry. Toothpaste producers include it in toothpaste’s composition.

Saccharin was not well regarded in the 20th century’s medical world. Experiments performed on animals showed increased consumption of saccharin enriched foods led to weight gain and even obesity. A 1970 research project with rats as subjects linked saccharin to the development of bladder cancer. Additional studies pointed towards the substance’s connection to higher risks of cancer in male rats fed saccharin for extended periods. In spite of this, researchers stated that what caused cancer in rats was a mechanism unfamiliar to the human body. In 2001, American researchers from different health organization lifted the warning label and deemed saccharine as a non-threatening substance. Saccharin in on the Food and Drug Administration lost ever since 1991. Some countries prohibit the use of saccharin in food products.[16]

  1. Sucralose

Sucralose is a relatively new artificial sweetener in comparison to saccharin, it was discovered by British researchers in 1976 and is the only non-caloric sweetener made  from sugar at the present moment. Unlike other artificial agents, it has good stability, a sugar-like taste and leaves no sensation after consumption. This makes it suitable for any type of food, from frozen desserts to baked products and even chewing gum. It has an excellent solubility so it can be used in beverages. Sucralose is about 600 times sweeter than sugar people use it as a sugar substitute because small amounts can compensate for the sweet taste. The substance does not break down in its constituents like aspartame does. This means the body can quickly absorb it without being affected by it. Studies show that sucralose is safe for all segments of the population, including diabetics.[17]

Sugar substitutes are popular and well-regarded by most people. They represent a sweet, non-caloric alternative to sugar and this element alone can work wonders on the way people perceive them. Numerous research projects have been conducted in order to establish once and for all the artificial sweetener’s health-related benefits and potential side effects. While there were experiments that pointed towards the possibility of cancer occurrence, most of them have not reached a well-rounded conclusion. Moreover, their effects on animals were rarely applicable in the case of human beings which made them even less reliable.[18]

Artificial sweeteners are not substances created to enhance health but merely maintain it. Many of them are approved by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. Even those that are not can still be found on the “safe substances” list of many other health organizations around the globe. Artificial sweeteners should be used in moderate quantities. This way, they will present no health risks. Pregnant and nursing women, young children and even patients suffering from diabetes can safely use them as long as there is balance.