2013 BSJ Blog

Artificial sweeteners: A victory against obesity or just the beginning of new problems?


With Halloween behind us and the beginning of the holiday season ahead, many folks are beginning a preemptive diet to ward off seasonal bellies. But with diet sodas and sugar-free desserts, are you really going to keep off those holiday pounds? Or could there be even more sinister consequences of turning to sugar-free products to avoid weight gain?

Sucrose, more commonly known as “table sugar.” Artificial sweeteners are up to several hundred times sweeter than this compound.

For many years now, food brands have been turning to artificial sweeteners in order to reduce the caloric content of many processed snacks and drinks. Sugar free gum, yogurt, gelatin, soft drinks, jellies, and candies are just some of the foods which have benefited from the FDA approval of artificial sweeteners.

But what constitutes an artificial sweetener? Are they really that much better for you? How can they help those living with diabetes? Do they have any undesirable side effects?

Sucralose, an artificial sweetener, more commonly known as Splenda. The structure of the molecule allows it to pass through the body without being broken down into energy.

Artificial sweeteners, also known as non-nutritive sweeteners, are generally compounds derived from sugars which our body cannot digest and absorb, therefore preventing the absorption of calories into the body which would occur under normal circumstances. There are five FDA-approved low- to no-calorie compounds which can be used to replace sugar: aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, neotame, and acesulfame potassium. Stevia, an herbal, non-caloric sweetener, is also recognized as safe for consumption by the FDA.

Nature’s miracle sweetener: the stevia plant.

The American Diabetes Association states that artificial sweeteners are a good alternative to help people reduce their intake of added sugars. This has made it easier for diabetics to enjoy things as simple as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches without worrying if the sugar in the jelly will cause them to end up in the hospital. But not all implications of artificial sweeteners are good ones.

One of the main concerns existing around artificial sweeteners is whether or not they are carcinogenic. Some studies show a correlation between aspartame and bladder or brain cancer in non-human mammals (i.e. rats). However, the same results have not been replicated in studies with humans. Therefore the answer remains unknown if some artificial sweeteners are carcinogenic, although it seems unlikely. Stevia, on the other hand, is a plant extract which has been in use for centuries, and is therefore most likely safe for normal consumption.

Overall, artificial sweeteners are an invention which may aid in the reduction of calories in the average American diet. They give diabetics larger options in terms of their nutritional choices without risking a dangerous spike in blood sugar. For now, artificial sweeteners appear safe, but as always it is better to err on the side of caution and consume them in moderation.