Is Saccharin a Safe Alternative to Sugar?

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD on June 26, 2017Written by Corey Whelan

What is saccharin?

Saccharin is an artificial sweetener that contains no calories and no nutritional value. It’s an estimated 200 to 700 times sweeter than regular table sugar and is sold under several brand names in packet and pourable form. These include Sweet’N Low and Necta Sweet.

Saccharin can be found in many products, such as beverages and processed foods. These include:

  • diet soda
  • low-calorie fruit juice
  • sugar-free gum
  • sugar-free candy and cough drops
  • low-calorie syrups, jams, and jellies
  • sugar-free yogurt
  • sugar-free or low-calorie frozen yogurt
  • sugar-free ice cream
  • meal replacement bars and shakes
  • powdered protein or diet drink mixes
  • low-calorie cookies, cakes, and other processed baked goods

Saccharin is approved as a sugar substitute and as an ingredient in processed foods and beverages by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Even so, many people have concerns about saccharin’s overall safety.

Is saccharin safe to eat?

An animal study done in 1978 linked saccharin use to bladder cancer in mice and rats. These findings raised concerns about saccharin use and cancer. Because of this study, Congress mandated that additional studies be done, including in humans.

Congress also required products that contain saccharin to carry a warning label. According to the FDA, 30 studies have been done on humans since that time, none of which show a link to cancer. In 2000, saccharin was removed from the federal government’s list of possible carcinogens.

Can saccharin cause side effects?

Since it’s nonnutritive, saccharin goes right through the body without being digested. This may make it a better choice than sugar for people with diabetes. However, due to its sweet taste, it may still cause your body to release insulin.

Researchers continue to examine saccharin’s effects on overall health. One animal study from 2014 found that saccharin and other artificial sweeteners can increase glucose intolerance. This is due to its impact on gut bacteria.

Increased glucose intolerance can result in a prediabetic condition known as hyperglycemia. This means that your blood sugar level is above the normal range, but not high enough to be classified as diabetes. Hyperglycemia is associated with insulin resistance, stroke, heart disease, and mortality risk.

A different animal study also concluded that saccharin negatively impacts gut bacteria and promotes liver inflammation. A 2014 animal study indicated that saccharin use can lead to weight gain, obesity, and increased appetite. Neither study’s results have been duplicated in large, human studies, however.

Saccharin is a synthetic compound. It may cause allergic reactions in some people. If you’re allergic to saccharin, you may have side effects such as:

  • hives
  • itching
  • headaches
  • diarrhea
  • shortness of breath

Is saccharin better for you than aspartame?

Saccharin is often compared to aspartame, another artificial sweetener. Aspartame is sold under several brand names, including Equal, NutraSweet, and Sugar Twin. Both saccharin and aspartame have been deemed safe for human consumption by the FDA.

Unlike saccharin, aspartame is classified as a nutritive rather than nonnutritive sweetener. It adds a small amount of calories to food. Even so, aspartame is a low-calorie sugar substitute. It’s approximately 200 times sweeter than regular table sugar.

While aspartame is considered safe for the general population, new research is raising concern. A 2017 study suggests that aspartame may exacerbate cortisol levels and microbial activity and worsen blood sugar control in diabetics. Another recent study advises caution with aspartame use due to potential neurobehavioral effects, including depression, mood swings, headaches, anxiety, and insomnia.

People with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare hereditary disease, should not use aspartame or products containing it. This is because aspartame contains phenylalanine, a substance that people with PKU can’t metabolize. Products containing aspartame are required to indicate a warning for people with PKU on their labels.

The bottom line

For people who want to limit their sugar intake, saccharin may be a better choice than table sugar. Saccharin may raise blood glucose levels, though, so it should be used in moderation. Saccharin has not been shown to cause any type of cancer in people, but more research is being done to confirm its safety.

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