According to the Calorie Control Council, this year, about 180 million adult Americans—more than half the adult population—will consume low-calorie, sugar-free foods and beverages. While most do so for weight management, some 20 million are Americans with diabetes who must restrict their intake of sugar. With the exception of products derived from sugar alcohols, they will use the non-nutritive sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners, also referred to as non-nutritive sweeteners and zero-calorie sweeteners, do not provide the body with energy—i.e., there’s no nutritive value to consuming them. The compounds pass through the body without being digested; they are only partially metabolized by the body. The chemicals offer the sweetness of sugar without the calories. Calories are not a negative word; consumed in appropriate amounts, they provide the body with needed energy (that’s why hikers pack chocolate peanut candy bars and trail mix). Note that not all non-nutritive sweeteners are “artificial”: some, like the sugar alcohols (erythritol, maltitol, sorbitol, etc.) and stevia are considered natural, not chemically-derived, products (and are costlier than the artificial products).
Because they are are much sweeter than sugar, it takes a tiny amount of these sweeteners to create the same level of sweetness. In fact, packets of Equal and Splenda, which are branded forms of the chemical compounds aspartame and sucralose, are padded out with fillers. Only a few grains of the chemical are needed to sweeten the product. If they didn’t have fillers, you’d tear open a packet, see a few grains of powder and think the machine forgot to fill it properly.
How Safe Are They?
They’re safe. Artificial sweeteners are often the subject of alarming stories in the media, claiming that they cause a variety of health problems, including cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, however, there's no scientific evidence that any of the FDA-approved artificial sweeteners causes cancer.
However, aspartame isn’t safe for people who have the rare hereditary disease phenylketonuria (PKU). Products that contain aspartame carry a PKU warning on the label.
Photo courtesy SXC.
Artificial Sweeteners List
(acesulfame-K or Ace-K,
as Sunett®, Sweet
Alitame (marketed as Aclame®)†
Aspartame (marketed as Equal®,
Nutrasweet® and NatraTaste®)*‡
Saccharin (marketed as Sweet ‘N
Low®, Sugar Twin®)*‡
Sucralose (marketed as
†Application pending for FDA approval
‡Branded product mixed with dextrose and maltodextrIn for more sugar-like texture and®
Ace-K, aspartame, neotame, saccharine, and sucralose are FDA-approved. Alitame and cyclamate have filed for, and are awaiting, FDA approval to be sold in the U.S. They are in use elsewhere throughout the world.
When non-nutritive sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin and sucralose are turned into products for consumer use, they are mixed with dextrose and maltodextrin—nutritive sugars—as bulking agents. Otherwise, because of the intense flavor of the chemicals, the amount of actual aspartame, sucralose or other artificial sweetener that a consumer would use would amount to a few grains—not enough to “portion out.” As you will note when you open an individual paper packet of sweetener, the contents are still rather meager. When you see the relative ratios of sweetness in the glossary below, you’ll know why so few grains of artificial sweetener are needed.
How Much is Too Much?
All FDA-approved artificial sweeteners—acesulfame-K or Ace-K (Sunett, aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal), neotame, saccharine (Sweet ‘N Low), sucralose (Splenda), and tagatose—are considered safe in moderate doses.
To guide consumers, the FDA sets an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for anything that is added to foods. For sweeteners, the ADI is 3400 milligrams. In the case of aspartame, for a 150-pound adult the maximum would be:
15 diet sodas (a 12-ounce can of diet soda contains about 225 milligrams of aspartame)
85 packets of Equal® (each packet has about 40 milligrams of aspartame)
Thus, most people are safely within the level of tolerance. If you are at the point of tipping beyond 15 diet sodas a day, you aren’t drinking your eight glasses of water—also critical to a successful diet.
The average adult can have 15 diet sodas a day? That’s an expensive habit! Photo courtesy Coca-Cola.