Artificial sweeteners are low-calorie, or calorie-free chemical substances, that are used instead of sugar to sweeten foods, drinks and a multitude of other products. Most are synthetic, i.e. man-made but others are derived from naturally occurring substances, such as herbs or even sugar itself.
The most common types are:
- acesulfame K
Typically, these sweeteners are some 200 times sweeter than sugar, with sucralose being 650 times sweeter.
What are they good for though; what’s the point of them? Well from the food manufacturers perspective, the big advantage of artificial sweeteners is that they are much cheaper than sugar and sugar-based sweeteners. Then there’s the fact they are literally hundreds of times sweeter – this means in terms of bulk they are much smaller, and thus easier and cheaper to transport. Yet another plus for the manufacturers is the fact these sweeteners are virtually calorie free. This enables them to produce foods for the health market and quite truthfully advertize them as low-sugar products. Whether they are actually healthy though is another question and depends on what else is in them!
For the consumer, artificial sweeteners are useful alternatives to sugar because they add virtually no calories to a person’s diet. Also, because of their intense sweetness, only a fraction of artificial sweetener is needed compared with sugar. This makes them tailor-made for people who are trying to lose weight. They are also a godsend for people with diabetes as they provide sweetness without the attendant rise in blood sugar levels found with sugar.
Now we come to the big question – the one to which no one seems able to give a definitive answer. This is, of course, are artificial sweeteners safe to eat? And the reason no one can answer it is that no one really knows for sure. Government bodies across the world swear they are, as do the food manufacturers (predictably). For example, the American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) have both approved the use of artificial sweeteners in place of sugar as a means of combating obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. These are all well known risk factors for heart disease.
However, many experts are not so sure. One concern is that people who use artificial sweeteners may simply replace the calories they have thus lost with calories from other sources, so negating any weight loss or health benefits. They may think because they’ve stopped eating doughnuts, it’s ok to drink Pepsi.
Another concern is that artificial sweeteners can change the way we taste food because they are so much more potent. It is thought that frequent consumption of them can overstimulate our sugar receptors and, in so doing, reduce our tolerance for more complex tastes. This can cause people who routinely eat these artificial sweeteners to start finding less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, positively unpalatable.
In other words, over-use of artificial sweeteners can make people shun healthy nutritious foods in favor of artificially flavored foods that have much lower nutritional value.
And there’s more. Studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can prevent people from associating sweetness with calorie intake. This makes them deliberately choose to eat sweet, nutrient-deficient food rather than savory and more nutritious food – the result of course is an increase in weight.
The above makes it clear that artificial sweeteners in themselves do not cause health issues. At least not as far as we know – don’t forget that many of them haven’t been around long enough for their long-term effects to be have been fully evaluated. What is beyond dispute, however, is the way they can affect the way some people think about food, actually change how they react to the taste of food, and can trick them into thinking they are eating more healthily than they actually are.
The problem for those of us concerned about the safety aspect of eating artificial sweeteners, is the fact that in todays world it is extremely difficult not to – they are in virtually every foodstuff we eat. They’re also in everyday products that you would never expect – toothpaste being a typical example.
All we can really do is to limit the amount of these sweeteners we eat as much as possible.