Most of us like sweet things, and there has been quite a bit in the news in recent years about what goes into all of those sweet things. With the dramatic increase in diabetes, we’ve even begun to pay closer attention to lowering our sugar intake. It’s better for our health, and it’s better for our waistlines. But there is information that as an informed consumer you should know about the sweeteners you’re putting into your body. Although they may help you in your efforts to cut your calories, they may not in the long run be better for your health.
It is important to note in association with this article that there are rampant studies available showing that artificial sweeteners are harmful to your health. There are also innumerable studies available that show that they are not harmful to your health. All of the sweeteners listed in this article are artificial sweeteners, except for stevia, which is natural.
In general, the concerns regarding artificial sweeteners include:
- These substances are not naturally occurring in nature. As a result, should we be concerned that they may not be good for our health?
- There is some indication that some of the components in some of the artificial sweeteners may be genetically modified.
- There are studies that indicate that artificial sweeteners may be one of the causes for overeating, such as a rat study that was published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.1
- There is growing concern about the safety of processed foods on our health.
- Due to the high number of conflicting studies and opinions, it can be very confusing for the average consumer to adequately know and understand which studies are relevant for health and well-being.
Years ago, there were fewer options. If something was sweet, it likely contained sugar (sucrose), honey, maybe even maple syrup. Then along came other sweet contenders such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
HFCS is actually a combination of glucose and fructose. It starts out as cornstarch and then is degraded to become glucose and ultimately also fructose. Most consumers think of HFCS as a thick syrup in our soft drinks, however they aren’t aware of the process that goes into making HFCS or the number of products that contain it.
In the processing of HFCS the cornstarch is treated with three enzymes, alpha-amylase, glycoamylase and glucose-isomerase. Alpha-amylase is industrially produced from a bacterium and glucoamylase is produced by a fungus.2 There have been some claims that two of the enzymes have been genetically modified to make them more stable, so if you have concerns about genetically modified foods you may want to do additional research in this area.3
The actual studies regarding HFCS and the impact to our health have been mixed. Early studies indicated an association between increased consumption of sweetened beverages and obesity.4 Later studies, some of which were sponsored by the beverage industry itself, indicate that HFCS is not any less healthy than other sweeteners.5
Another large area of concern is regarding just how very many foods contain HFCS. Most products that are marketed to children, including many vitamins, as well as many of our breads, and most processed foods contain HFCS.6 Because HFCS is known to extend shelf-life, it has become the darling of processed foods.
The benefits of HFCS as listed by SweetSurprise.com (a website devoted to educating consumers about and advocating HFCS) are:7
- It has a great sweet flavor.
- It can be used to enhance flavor.
- It promotes freshness and inhibits microbial spoilage.
- It lends a soft texture to baked goods.
- It’s stable over time and retains its flavor.
- It has a low freezing point and is able to be poured.
- The majority of the sugars in it are fermentable.
Ira Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg at Johns Hopkins University discovered saccharin in 1879 while working on coal tar derivatives.8 Officially, “a continuous process using o-toluenesulfonamide, a hexavalent chromium compound, sulfuric acid and water” produces saccharin.9 Saccharin is usually found in the pink packets (Sweet N Low) in restaurants, and its benefits as listed at www.saccharin.org are:
- It is beneficial for diabetics and the obese.
- It is low calorie.
- It has a variety of end-products including not only foods, but pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and vitamins.
- It is beneficial for those who need restricted carbohydrates.
Saccharin has a long history of controversy, spanning all the way back to President Roosevelt when the man heading the USDA bureau of chemistry declared it was dangerous for health and well-being.10 Saccharin has been suspected of links to cancer almost since it came to market. Canada banned the use of it and the U.S. soon began to follow those footsteps.
However, there was a large public outcry from the diabetic population and others, and the U.S. ultimately decided to put warning labels on the products instead. The U.S. formally withdrew the legislation to ban saccharin in 1991 and in the year 2000 the requirement to label the products with warnings were withdrawn.
As with almost all of the other artificial sweeteners, there have been studies that appear to show a link to cancer or other negative health affects, and there have been later studies that appear to indicate there is no health risk. The advocates of saccharin indicate there is no increased risk of bladder cancer or other health risks.
The advocates come from some very recognizable institutions such as the FDA Center for Drugs and Biologics, the National Cancer Institute, and Johns Hopkins University among others. The more recent studies seem to refute the earlier studies suggesting a link to bladder tumors in rats and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences officially removed it from the list of known carcinogens in 2000.11
Aspartame was introduced in 1965 and was initially approved for use in 1974. Products that you will recognize using aspartame as a central ingredient include Equal and NutraSweet among others. Aspartame products are typically found in the blue packets in restaurants. Aspartame is made from aspartic acid and phenylalanine, which are amino acids, and has been tested over thirty years in 200 studies.12
Benefits of aspartame are listed as the following by the Aspartame Information Center:13
- Tastes like sugar
- Enhances and extends flavors
- Does not promote tooth decay
- Helpful for diabetics
- Assists with weight control
- Can be part of a healthful diet
Aspartame has been highly controversial almost since its approval in 1974 as a result of some studies that indicated aspartame was linked to cancer in rats. Aspartame is genetically engineered from bacteria in some countries, although not all. It breaks down to aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol.14 There are some studies that show that aspartame further breaks down to formaldehyde as well.15
Again, there are numerous studies evaluated by the FDA and the manufacturer that indicate the product is safe for use with normal consumption, while there are other studies that support the product may be linked to cancer development and other negative health implications, many of which are available on the web.
Sucralose, which is the primary ingredient of Splenda, commonly found in yellow packets in restaurants, was discovered in 1976. Sucralose has been tested for safety over twenty years and is approved for use in over 80 countries according to Calorie Control Council. Benefits of sucralose are listed as:16
- It is made from sugar.
- It has no calories and presents no dental problems.
- It is safe for everyone.
- It is well tested and approved for use.
- It maintains its sweetness even when heated.
- It helps with lowering caloric intake.
- It tastes great.
Sucralose is not as heavily controversial as some of the other sweeteners, and is the only artificial sweetener that is stated as being safe by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.17 That organization lists both aspartame and saccharin as unsafe. There are studies that indicate the product is not healthy when used in high doses. The Canadian Diabetes Association lists the acceptable daily limit of Sucralose as 9 mg/kg body weight.
Stevia is a natural sweetener and is from the stevia species of plants that originates in South America, Central America, Mexico, and more recently some of the southwestern U.S.18 Indigenous people have used it for centuries because of its sweet leaves. Stevia’s main component is called Stevioside and Rebaudioside.
Stevioside has been tested for years for safety. Stevia is available in its original form (fresh stevia leaves), liquid concentrates, dried leaves and extracts. There are numerous products on the market, mostly located in health food stores. Each has a somewhat different taste, with some carrying a stronger aftertaste than others. Although stevia itself is quite sweet, some varieties of the product can have a bitter aftertaste.
Stevia has had its own share of controversy. Politically, the FDA banned its import in 1991 citing that the toxicological information was insufficient to demonstrate safety.19 Early studies indicated that there may be some cause for concern that stevia could cause mutations in the liver or lead to fertility problems in men.20
The ban of stevia by the FDA caused some concern from the public as their guidelines until that point had been to grandfather natural products that have been used prior to 1958 with no adverse effects into their GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status. Stevia was later allowed in after the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which allowed use of it in the U.S. as a dietary supplement.21 Stevia has been used for years in Japan without any apparent side effects but is currently banned in Australia and Canada.22
Rebiana is the foundation of perhaps the newest artificial sweetener to hit the market, Truvia (pronounced Tru-VEE-ah). Rebiana is derived from the Rebaudioside part of the stevia plant. Coca-Cola and Cargill teamed up to produce Truvia and they have done an excellent job of marketing the product as a natural sweetener. It is important to note for consumers however, that the stevia leaf as naturally occurring in nature cannot be patented and Truvia is patented.
There is some concern that there is not enough known at this time about rebiana or stevia in terms of medical studies. There are several studies in the PubMed database for stevioside, which has been tested and used in Japan for years. However, there is minimal information regarding rebiana, although Cargill states that rebiana breaks down in the body the same was as stevioside and that Rebaudioside A, the main component of rebiana is chemically nearly identical to stevioside.23 In 2008, The FDA raised no objection to the status of GRAS for Truvia and PureVia, the Pepsi version of the product.
Of course, like the other sweeteners, Truvia and PureVia have their own set of controversies. Although they did not share in some of the political controversy of the others, the products are debated by those in the natural and holistic communities for the way they were fast-tracked through the approval process. There is also concern that as a natural plant, stevia is unable to be patented.
Because Truvia and PureVia are patented, some in the natural and holistic communities question what modifications to the plant derivatives have been made in order to warrant the patent. There is also concern regarding the safety of the rebiana component in that the safety is largely based on the stevioside component rather than true studies of the rebiana component.
There are those individuals who make health decisions based on scientific studies and data and wait for the FDA to review those studies and approve a product as safe for use before generally accepting the product as safe for their own use. Others prefer to do their own research and evaluate a larger body of information prior to using a new product or supplement.
Regardless of which method you employ, or perhaps both, always be discerning of the information you receive prior to making a decision for yourself or your family. Life is indeed sweet, just make sure you get all of the information you need before you add a little more of that sweet taste to your foods.