What’s the Skinny on Artificial Sweeteners? Make Smart Choices or Choose Your Poison?

Foodies 717 views
Written by Timothy Pfaff

Non-sugar food-sweeteners have been around a long time—long enough for people to have lost track of their individual merits. We wade through the confusion.

What’s the Skinny on Artificial Sweeteners? Make Smart Choices or Choose Your Poison?

Regular readers of this blog will notice that we are instituting a new category, Foodies. It’s for people who consider food not just a health issue but one of the primary health issues. Such as we have a single, fixed opinion about food, it’s Hooray! If we had theme music, it would be “Food, glorious food” from Oliver!.

But, we concede, it’s complicated. Still, we welcome epicures and fussy eaters alike, and people with food and eating disorders. We’re big-tent foodies.

The funny thing about foodies is that the people most likely to be called epicures today are as likely to be laying down the big bills at what our San Francisco friends call “Whole Paycheck” as much for reasons of health as of gourmet tastes. As often as not, the major contributor to the high cost of a food is what isn’t in it.

As often as not, we’ll be talking about content more than flavor, though you won’t be seeing us turning up our noses at the spice racks. A lot of great-, strong-tasting things also pack a wallop in the health department, and we’ll be the last to mind if healthy food is also sensationally, sensually scrumptious.

The food revolution that has taken place since people parted company with their can openers has brought with it a fund of food fetishes. Sides get drawn and taken. Absolutism reigns. At the level of public discourse, “comfort food” is an endangered species.

Arguably the closest thing to a consensus lately has been food writer Michael Pollen’s “7 Words and 7 Rules for Eating”: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” But to some, those will be fighting words.

Bibs on, let’s dig in!

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Artificial sweeteners

One of the most contentious issues in modern eating is the substitution of artificial sweeteners for sucrose. If you’re reading this blog post, you already know that for the most part “sugar” has earned a bad name.

There are reasons some people call it food heroin and consider it sweet revenge when its adversaries demonstrate that it’s a carcinogen. There’s a reason that, in times of food rationing, the two indisputable staples have been salt and sugar, neither a food so much as a flavor enhancer trained on the human brain’s g-spots.

Today even people who would no more give up sugar than they would oxygen can, in certain circles, get downright bashful about it. For reasons too numerous to mention, the chemists and their proponents among the industrial anti-sugar barons have seized on ambient sucrose to provide safe(r) substitutes for the chronic sweet tooth with a bad conscience.

Not only people with diabetes, pre-diabetics and worried pre-pre-diabetics use these substances with the upbeat brand names. There are people on weight-loss diets or gesturing in that direction. There are people following doctor’s orders for other reasons. There are people wishing to limit tooth decay. There may even be people who like the tastes, or have convinced themselves they do.

Tellingly, it’s not the actually imperiled sugar industry with its long history of literally grinding slave labor that put the bitter in the sweet that is loudest in its condemnation of the alternatives. It’s the health scientists.

If truth were measureable in Google links, it’s the “fake sugar” crowd that would go down hardest. It’s there that the opponents of synthesized sweeteners name names—that is, supply the brand names that mask the generic names, to “alert” the public. It’s also there the “better” headlines prevail.

Typical is “Dangers of artificial sweeteners confirmed,” though there’s a lot more where that came from, and from places like Harvard University and America’s renowned Mayo Clinic. Well give you some links in Sources/Reading below.    

We get that sucrose is one of the 27,364 leading causes of sickness, cancer, and death in lab rats and hair loss in human males over 50. We also venture the opinion that if the laboratories came up with a sweetener that tasted better than processed sugar, the "natural" sugar industry would die, if hardly prematurely.

Meanwhile, people—including smart, intellectually concerned ones—continue to use both the substitutes and the real thing, if with ever greater stealth in public. So we proposed beginning this multi-part blog post with as dispassionate a post as we can manage just looking at the artificial sugar-substitutes that are out there, more or less historically.

In another post, we’ll look at the natural alternatives to processed sugar (there are far more than honey, and a gazillion kinds of honey). And in a third post we’ll look at the alternatives to the alternatives.

If we’re 100% sure about anything, it’s that your doctor has opinions about this, and our opinion is that you should listen to hers.

You’ll need two acronyms to follow the discussion in the sources. ADI stands for acceptable daily intake and was devised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. MSI stands for multiplier sweetness intensity, a measure of a substance’s sweetness as compared to sugar, by weight.


[Sweetex, UK]

Our readers will likely include some who remember when saccharine was “the” (that is the only) readily available synthesized sugar substitute. Not surprisingly, it has been around long enough that, as a word, it has entered the language to signify anything overly, deceptively, or falsely sweet.

First synthesized in 1879, its sweetness was an unintended outcome of the experiment. It is still created by that original process and another developed in 1950. Three hundred to five hundred times sweeter than sugar, it still has a bitter aftertaste.

It’s been more or less mired in controversy ever since a study form the 1960s showed that it caused bladder cancer in rats. Even so, it has survived numerous attempts to ban it, retains FDA approval, has been removed from the EPA’s list of “hazardous” chemical substances, and remains in wide use internationally.


[Canadian-made Sweet’n Low and Sugar Twin, but not their U.S. counterparts]

A mere 30 to 50 times sweeter than sugar, it is often used in combination with saccharine. “Discovered” in the lab in 1937, it remained hugely profitable until the early 1970s, when studies detected its carcinogenic tendencies. It is currently banned in the U.S. but approved in at least 130 other countries.


[NutraSweet, Equal, and Canderel]

“Discovered,” again by accident, by a researcher at the G.D. Serle Company in 1965, it is an odorless, white crystalline powder 200 times sweeter than sugar. It produces neither the bitter aftertaste of saccharin nor the true taste of sugar.

Since its discovery, it has been one of the most rigorously tested of food additives. It has been associated with the development of concerns from brain cancer to leukemia, but laboratory tests have provided no conclusive proof of its carcinogenic qualities. More than 100 countries have deemed it safe for consumption, though its benefits for either weight loss or the management of diabetes remain highly disputed.


[Splenda, Zerocal, Sukrana, SucraPlus, Candys, Cukren, and Nevella]

Synthesized in 1976, and some 600 times as sweet as sugar, sucralose is the most widely used artificial sweetener in the world. It is non-caloric and does appear beneficial in tooth cavity prevention. It is also available in a granular form in which it is “volume-to-volume” the same sweetness as sugar, a significant advantage fort cooks. Less conveniently, it is sold in bulk but not in packages for individual use.

Despite winning widespread, lasting approval, it made itself controversial by Splenda’s advertising promotion, “Splenda is made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.” The Sugar Association responded with a Truth About Splenda website in 2005. It is synthesized from one or two sugars, sucrose or raffinose, the latter a naturally occurring trisaccharide composed of galactoseglucose, and fructose.”

Safety concerns

It would be hard to overstate the number and variety of controversies swirling around the safety of synthesized sugar substitutes for humans. A good overview of the controversies and the resulting confusion on the part of the public is presented in a Mayo Clinic article here. Links to more articles are presented below.

The strongest risks may not be in the substances themselves but in the misunderstandings people who turn to them have. One resulting complication of their being calorie-free is that users are inclined to see them in an “all you can eat” context. In the area of weight loss alone, use can lead to weight gain because people consuming sweeteners in foods tend to overlook the food’s other ingredients that do have calories.

The facts are that the consumption of artificial sweeteners worldwide is increasing steadily. And the view of one set of researchers is that, taken together, the studies of artificial sweeteners “suggest that consuming artificial sweeteners is just as bad for you as sugar... and artificial sweeteners may even exacerbate the negative effects of sugar.”

The Mayo Clinic’s conclusion seems as sane as any: Use any artificial sweeteners in moderation. Ironically, it’s not far from the older, hoarier dietary recommendation to use sugar in moderation.

More to come. Stay tuned.



http://chemistry.elmhurst.edu/vchembook/546sucrose.html (technical discussion of sucrose by approachable by the lay reader)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugar_substitute (a superb overview with internal links to articles on individual sweeteners)

Health concerns: