No Calorie Sweeteners–Myths & Misinformation

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on June 19, 2013 · 0 comments

No calorie sweeteners or artificial sweeteners have no carbs and no calories. Brands you are familiar with are Sweet ‘N Low, Sugar Twin, Equal, NutraSweet, Fruit-Sweetness, Truvia, and Splenda. Their chemical or generic names are saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, stevia, luo han guo, and acesulfame-K. All have been approved for use by the FDA and most have an established ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake), the amount a person can consume safely over a lifetime without risk. Yet, all are regularly haunted by some scary tales that read like the latest horror flick.

Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low, Sugar Twin), which has been around for over 120 years was accused of causing cancer in laboratory animals in the 1970s. The FDA initiated steps to ban saccharin from our food supply but after a public outcry they decided on a warning label instead which stayed on all products containing saccharin for the next 20 years. In 2000, the National Institutes of Health removed saccharin from their list of cancer causing substances and the requirement for the warning label was lifted because additional research on animals and thousands of people showed no evidence that saccharin increases the risk for cancer.

Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), is found in the little blue packets on restaurant tables and became the sweetener of choice when saccharin fell out of favor. It has been blamed for everything imaginable but most notably headaches. What is most interesting about aspartame is that it is a derivative of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. These are protein fragments that are common in many protein foods we eat and the body easily handles them.

Aspartame does not accumulate in the body and the ADI (set at 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight) is impossible to reach eating normally. You would need to drink 15 (12 ounce) cans of soda, or eat 42 (4 ounce) servings of diet gelatin, or use 91 packets of Equal daily. Even heavy users are estimated to get no more that 6% of the ADI daily.

People with a rare genetic disorder called PKU (phyenlketonuria), which is diagnosed in the first few days after birth, must avoid aspartame because they are unable to breakdown phenylalanine, half of the aspartame compound. For this reason, all foods containing aspartame must carry the warning label: “Phenylketonurics: Contains phenylalanine.” This warning is specific to a small group of people, not a general caution for the public at large.

Sucralose (Splenda) approved by the FDA in 1999, is the sugar substitute that has ignited the least controversy. More than 110 studies conducted over 20 years have shown no problems. No restrictions are suggested, even for pregnant and nursing women. Sucralose is made by slightly altering the sugar molecule so that the body does not recognize it and it passes through the intestinal tract undigested.

Acesulfame K (Sunette, Sweet One) was approved by the FDA in 1988. It too, is not broken down by the body, so it is eliminated without providing calories. Acesulfame-K has been approved for use in almost 90 countries, and the FDA expanded its scope of use in 2003.

Newest among the no calories sweeteners are the plant based sweeteners stevia and monk fruit. Monk fruit (luo han guo) is a powdered concentrate from a plant grown in China that is part of the cucumber or melon family. It is 150 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia (Truvia) comes from the sweet tasting leaves of a shrub in the chrysanthemum family. It is often combined with erythritol (a low calorie sugar substitute) when used as a tabletop substitute for granulated sugar.

There are many reasons why someone would use no calorie sweeteners. For a person with diabetes or a dieter it allows you to eat foods you might otherwise not. For someone who loves overly sweet cereal or coffee, you get that option without the calories. For most of us, some food we eat regularly, especially diet soda and “light” versions of ice cream, yogurt or fruit drinks will contain no calorie sweeteners. Is this exposure safe? By and large, yes and the risk to any one person, with normal use, is tiny.

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