Dieters tend to view sugar substitutes as the answer to their sweet dreams. You get to satisfy your craving without incurring the caloric damage. However, there may be some risk involved. Artificial sweeteners have only been around for about 50 years. There isn’t a large body of research about how they affect your body. Here’s what we do know about four of the most popular picks.
It goes by the name Sweet N’ Low and has been around the longest. It’s 350 times sweeter than sugar. Studies have found a link between its overconsumption and certain types of cancer. The FDA did consider banning it over 30 years ago, but the controversy created such a big hubbub that it never happened.
Going by the name NutraSweet or Equal, this sweetener is typically found in low-cal frozen and gelatin desserts, as well as beverages and drink mixes. It’s about 200 times sweeter than sugar. Although the research is inconclusive, much of it points toward a link with cancer and, according to one 2010 Danish study, pre-term labor.
Also known as Splenda, this sweetener has only been approved in the U.S. since 1998 and can be found, well, just about everywhere. It’s advertised as being “made from sugar,” but that’s not the whole story. They leave out the part about the sugar being rinsed in chlorine (yum?). According to research, this option may appear to be your best bet, since there are no sure bets.
The newest addition to the artificial sweetener family, you’ll find it sold as Truvia, Purevia, and Sun Crystals, to name a few. It’s between 200-400 times sweeter than sugar and most commonly used as a tabletop sweetener or in diet drinks. Although it’s touted as being natural and from a Stevia leaf, it goes through a lot of processing before it makes it to you. The FDA has placed Stevia on its GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) list, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition watchdog organization, contests that it hasn’t been properly tested.
The bottom line
Although most of these highly processed artificial sweeteners are probably safe in very small doses, I tend to shy away from them, especially with such wishy-washy research. It’s also important to realize that artificial sweeteners are being used more often in our food supply without any disclosure on the front of labels. That’s why it’s important to read the ingredient list carefully — you may be using more than you think.
Toby Amidor is a registered dietician and the owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition. She holds a master’s degree in clinical nutrition and dietetics from New York University. You can follow her on Twitter at @tobyamidor.