It’s always struck me as somewhat odd when people approach me with concerns about sugar substitutes. What I mean by that is my first response is something akin to “Whatever your concerns are, the sugar substitute is going to be safer than using the sugar you’ve been using.” This Straight, No Chaser answers some basic questions about the use of the various artificial sweeteners. The considerations discussed below assume use of artificial sweeteners in a roughly equivalent manner as table sugar (i.e. in the same amounts).
When would I want to use an artificial sweetener?
Let’s start with the premise that you would do well to find an alternative to your routine table sugar (sucralose). Just because you’re used to it doesn’t mean it’s safe. The increased calories and subsequence risks for obesity, diabetes and other medical conditions are well and extensively described. Artificial sweeteners are attractive alternatives to sugar because they add essentially no calories to your diet. Also, if you’ve used artificial sweeteners at all, you likely know you need only a fraction of the amount of sugar you would normally use for sweetness.
What are the health benefits?
There are three potentially big benefits to using artificial sweeteners.
- Dental: Artificial sweeteners don’t contribute to dental decay and cavities.
- Weight control: Artificial sweeteners have virtually no calories. In contrast, each gram of regular table sugar contains 4 calories, and a teaspoon of sugar contains about 16 calories. In practical terms, one 12-ounce can of a sweetened cola contains 8 teaspoons of added sugar, or about 130 calories. If you’re trying to lose weight or trying to prevent weight gain, using artificial sweeteners instead of higher calorie table sugar may be an attractive option.
- Diabetes control: Unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners generally don’t raise blood sugar levels (because they are not carbohydrates). Always check with your doctor or dietitian about using any sugar substitutes if you have diabetes. You’ll likely be advised that artificial sweeteners may be a good alternative to sugar if you have diabetes.
What about the possible health concerns with artificial sweeteners?
Many people remember that once upon a time (i.e. in the 1970s), saccharin was linked to bladder cancer in lab rats. Some have been skeptical, if not fearful, of artificial sweeteners ever since. The fact of the matter is, according to the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies, there’s no compelling scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems. Saccharin doesn’t even carry a warning label anymore. Furthermore, numerous research studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women. You should be comforted by the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates artificial sweeteners. They all have been extensively reviewed and approved prior to public release. Furthermore, the stated “acceptable daily intake (ADI)” for artificial sweeteners (i.e. the maximum amount considered safe to consume each day over the course of your lifetime) is intended to be about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns.
Bottom line: Moderation is key because artificial sweeteners are attached to foods. Just because a food is marketed as sugar-free (having artificial sweeteners) doesn’t mean it’s free of calories; there are other ingredients in foods that likely contain calories. A common and realistic fear of artificial sweetener use is folks tend to consume more than they previously may have. This can lead to weight gain! Another consideration is if you’re getting your artificial sweeteners in processed foods, these generally don’t offer the same health benefits as whole foods such as fruits and vegetables.
There are a million articles from less renown sources that speak to ominous effects of sugar substitutes. Remember that virtually every substance known to man has adverse effects if used excessively. Based on the current medical literature, both on a relative and absolute scale, you should feel no concern with replacing your table sugar with sugar substitutes.
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