The label says, “no sugar added,” “sugar-free,” or “diet.” So what makes the food or drink inside the package so sweet? Chances are it’s an artificial sweetener, a chemically processed sugar substitute. Also known as non-nutritive, non-caloric or high-intensity sweeteners, these synthetic sweeties are hundreds or even thousands of times sweeter than table sugar. Artificial sweeteners are not carbohydrates, so they don’t raise blood sugar levels. This makes them a good alternative to sugar for people with diabetes. They also don’t contribute to tooth decay, and they have virtually no calories so they are a popular option for weight loss. Artificial sweeteners are everywhere—in soft drinks, juice drinks, gum, candies, yogurt, ice cream, baked goods, breakfast cereals, and indi-vidual sweetener packets to use at home. The big question is, “Are they safe?”
Safety testing of artificial sweeteners. As with any food additive, a company that wants to put an artificial sweetener in a food or drink has to get permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA reviews all the scientific evidence provided by the company to make sure the product is safe. Most testing is done on rats and mice, and the number of test subjects, the amount of the sweetener they are fed, and how long the study lasts can have a big impact on the outcomes. Not surprisingly, different studies show different results, which can create a lot of confusion for people.
Watchdog groups, such as Center for Science in the Public Interest, rightly call attention to studies that raise concerns about safety, urging the FDA to review products as new information emerges. At this time, however, the National Cancer Institute says there’s no clear scientific evidence that any artificial sweeteners approved in the U.S. cause cancer. The FDA does set Acceptable Daily Intakes, so (as with most things) moderation is key. Artificial sweeteners can help cut calories or make it possible to have a sweet treat that doesn’t raise blood sugar, but don’t overdo it, and keep an eye out for new high-quality studies.
—Judy Thalheimer, RD, LDN
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