Considerations on Artificial Sweeteners

The food industry not only promised us a rainbow of “sweet nothings” – sweets without calories or dental cavities – they delivered! Consumers may even pick their color of the rainbow: pink packets which contain saccharin, blue packets which contain aspartame and yellow packets which contain sucralose. Despite the rainbow of calorie-free sweets, Americans are eating more calories and carry more weight than ever before. A closer look at artificial sweeteners might suggest, “There is no such thing as a [calorie-] free lunch.”

The most recent FDA approval is called Neotame and it is 8,000X sweeter than sugar. The intense sweetness of artificial sweeteners can alter the sensitivity of taste buds, much the way chili peppers and South Indian cuisine accustom the palate to spicy foods. Then, when calorie-free sweeteners are not added, more sugar is required to satisfy the palate. Try testing your palate by reducing sweet tastes for one week.

The food industry refers to sugar and honey as “bulk sweeteners” and artificial sweeteners as “high intensity sweeteners.” If a dash of artificial sweetener has the same sweetness as a cup of sugar, what replaces the volume in sugar-free pastries? The volume is filled with starches such as polydextrose and maltodextrin which the body converts into sugar. Therefore choose minimally processed bulk sweeteners such as molasses and honey, or use xylitol (author’s choice), a bulk sweetener with only half the calories of sugar. Stevia is a popular sweetener: Consumers should be aware that it is only approved as a dietary supplement.

Are high intensity sweeteners safe? FDA approval is rigorous. Even so, long-term consequences of foreign chemicals can remain unknown for decades. For example, not until 2000 was there sufficient evidence to reassure the public that saccharin does not cause cancer. Artificial sweeteners pose more unanswered questions. What happens in the field compared to the laboratory? Aspartame breaks down into safe natural products in laboratory settings. However when exposed to high heat such as a soda-pop delivery truck, a car trunk or microwave, an inadequately studied chemical called diketopiperazine forms. What are the effects on fetal and newborn health, since extensive pregnancy studies have been limited to rodents? Since the trillions of microorganisms that line our linings compete for carbohydrates, how do artificial sweeteners affect gut health? Based on such unknowns, I encourage patients with vague and varied symptoms and a clean bill of health not to side-line potential side-effects of artificial sweeteners.

Some foods contain several sweeteners blended to create new sweet tastes, much the way malts are mixed in blended whisky, placing lovers of single malt scotch out of luck. Blending makes it difficult to avoid artificial sweeteners, which are no longer confined to packets and diet sodas. I’ve found them in mouthwash, a physician-endorsed sports drink, chewable medication, organic yogurt, parlor ice cream, and pickled ginger on a sushi platter. Consumers should be aware that food labels only list artificial sweeteners in the ingredients, not in the nutritional information.

With four new sweeteners awaiting FDA approval, it doesn’t appear that the rainbow will have an end. Unfortunately data to date suggest the rainbow’s pot of gold will belong to the food industry rather than public health.