Artificial sweeteners may assist in weight management, prevention of dental caries, and control of blood glucose for diabetics. It has also been suggested that low-calorie sweeteners may stimulate the appetite, but the bulk of evidence does not support this hypothesis. Conclusive research demonstrates that artificial sweeteners have no effect on carbohydrate metabolism, short- or long-term blood glucose control, or insulin secretion, and they are thus an excellent sugar alternative for diabetics. There have been a number of health concerns related with these products, though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process for artificial sweeteners involves a comprehensive analysis of scientific data to satisfy safety requirements. All "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) sweeteners have undergone extensive safety testing and have been carefully reviewed by the FDA.
Five FDA-Approved (GRAS) Artificial Sweeteners
Acesulfame potassium (Acesulfame-K) was discovered in 1967 and approved for use in the United States in 1988. Its trade name is Sunette. Two hundred times sweeter than sucrose, this sweetener is stable when heated, making it suitable for cooking. However, when used in large amounts it has a bitter aftertaste. It is not broken down by the body, and it does not provide any calories. Over ninety scientific studies have been conducted by the FDA, and the World Health Organization's Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has also endorsed Acesulfame K's safety.
Aspartame was discovered in 1969 and approved for use in the United States in 1981. Its trade name is NutraSweet. Also two hundred times sweeter than sugar, aspartame is not suitable in applications that require high temperatures, as it loses its sweetness when heated. It contains four calories per gram, but, because of its intense sweetness, the amount of energy derived from it is negligible. It is synthesized from aspartic acid and phenylalanine, two essential amino acids. Persons with the rare hereditary metabolic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU), an inborn error of metabolism, must control their intake of phenylalanine from all sources, including aspartame, and therefore all U.S. products containing aspartame are labeled "This product contains phenylalanine." Because it is impossible to know if an unborn child has PKU, it is recommended that pregnant women not use aspartame. The FDA states that aspartame is the most thoroughly tested food additive ever submitted to the agency.
Neotame was discovered in 1990 and was approved for use in the United States in 2002. Eight thousand times sweeter than sugar, this analog of aspartame can be used in both cooking and baking applications. Although neotame is a derivative of aspartame, it is not metabolized to phenylalanine, and
Saccharin was discovered in 1879 and approved for use in the United States in 1879. Its trade name is Sweet'n Low. Three hundred to five hundred times sweeter than table sugar, saccharin provides no energy, as it is not metabolized by human beings. It has a bitter and somewhat metallic aftertaste. The largest population study to date, involving nine thousand individuals, showed that saccharin does not increase the risk of cancer, and on December 15, 2000, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to remove the warning label that had been required on foods and beverages containing saccharin since 1977 (warning labels were required because of findings that saccharin caused bladder tumors in mice when they were given high doses of the sweetener). Saccharin is approved in more than one hundred countries around the world and has been reviewed and determined safe by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the World Health Organization and the Scientific Committee for Food of the European Union.
Sucralose was discovered in 1976 and approved for use in the United States in 1988. Its trade name is Splenda. Six hundred times sweeter than sugar, sucralose is not absorbed from the digestive tract, so it adds no calories to consumed food. It is made from rearranged sugar molecules that substitute three atoms of chlorine for three hydroxyl groups on the sugar molecule. Sucralose has been tested in more than one hundred studies.
Sugar Alcohols (GRAS)
Sugar alcohols are not technically artificial sweeteners. Examples include sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, isomalt, and maltitol, which are used to sweeten "sugar-free" foods such as candy, cookies, and chewing gum. The alcohols have fewer calories than sugar, do not promote tooth decay, and do not cause a sudden increase in blood glucose because the bloodstream does not easily absorb them. They may cause, however, effects similar to a laxative if consumed in excess. Products containing large amounts of sugar alcohols must be labeled with the warning: "Excess consumption may have a laxative effect."
Artificial Sweeteners Pending FDA Approval
Alitame is two thousand times sweeter than sugar. An FDA petition was filed in 1986. Like neotame, alitame is a derivative of aspartame. It is approved for use in a variety of food and beverage products in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Colombia, Indonesia, and the People's Republic of China.
Cyclamate was discovered in 1937, banned in 1969, and a petition for approval was refiled in 1982. After being banned by the FDA in 1969, due to findings that high doses cause bladder tumors in mice, cyclamate has been approved for use in more than fifty countries. The sweetener is a derivative of cyclohexylsulfamic acid and is thirty times sweeter than sucrose. In May 2003, the European Union reduced the recommended average daily intake of this sweetener in soft drinks, juice, and milk-based drinks, based on evidence that the conversion rate of cyclamate in the body is higher than previously thought.
Stevioside (stevia) is obtained from the leaves of a South American shrub. Though it can impart a sweet taste to foods, it cannot be sold as a sweetener because the FDA considers it an unapproved food additive. Stevioside is a high-intensity low-calorie sweetener three hundred times sweeter than sucrose. It is approved in Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that the data is insufficient to label it as a sweetener.
Artificial sweeteners taste sweet like sugar without the added calories. They do not promote tooth decay, and they are an acceptable alternative for people with diabetes or those wishing to decrease their use of sucrose. Artificial sweeteners, and their metabolic by-products and components, are not considered harmful to human beings at the levels normally used. When used in the context of a healthful diet, artificial sweeteners are generally safe for consumption.
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Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (1993–2003). "Evaluation of Certain Food Additives and Contaminants." Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.
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