Sugar Substitutes: Is There Any Harm?

Sugar substitutes and their health value have been widely debated for years. Despite the various claims against the various substitutes, they are still consumed all over for their low-calorie content. In a nation infatuated with health and fitness, many opt for sugar substitutes while others vehemently oppose their use.

What is a sugar substitute?

A survey in the early 2000’s found that the average American eats 22 teaspoons a day of sugar equaling 355 calories (1). Combine this excessive consumption of sugar with the body types that are praised in our country and you find the problem that created sugar substitutes as the answer. Food companies saw a need for low to zero calorie sweeteners and created various natural and unnatural solutions. This is why Splenda, Sweet ‘n Low and Equal are household names and diner staples. However, our nation’s solution to our sugar obsession may just be another problem. Many wonder: am I safe consuming sugar substitutes?

What are the arguments for sugar substitutes?

People choose sugar substitutes for everything from health to economic reasons. Listed here are some of the main arguments for the consumption of sugar substitutes.

Weight Loss

Sugar substitutes are many times much sweeter than their sugar counterpart and therefore consumers can eat less to achieve the same level of sweetness. Combine this reduced intake with the lower calorie content of most sweeteners and individuals can cut hundreds of calories from their diet by making the swap for sugar substitutes. The tables below show how incredibly sweet these substitutes are in comparison to sugar (5).
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Diabetes Management

Diabetics have issues regulating their blood sugar levels. By consuming certain sugar substitutes instead of sugar they can expect more stable blood sugar levels. This is due to the fact that some sugar substitutes metabolize slowly compared to sugar (5).With more stable blood sugar levels, diabetics can eat a more varied diet and avoid the discomfort of high and low blood sugar.

Cost

Many sugar substitutes are much cheaper than sugar (5). When shopping on a budget, cost tends to be the most important factor when choosing foods. Some sugar substitutes require much less to produce and therefore can be sold at a much lower cost than sugar.

Overall Health

A lecture given by a doctor recently claimed that “30%–40% of healthcare expenditures in the USA go to help address issues that are closely tied to the excess consumption of sugar.” It also claimed that, nationally, our consumption of sugar spawns $1 trillion in healthcare costs each year (3). Many look at sugar substitutes as a solution to our nation’s addition to sugar and the extreme effects of it on our population’s health.

What are the arguments against sugar substitutes?

There are a large number of claims against various sugar substitutes such as weight gain, bladder cancer and brain tumors. With the new natural, organic craze sweeping the nation, these substitutes have been scrutinized even more. Listed here are some o f the main arguments against the consumption of sugar substitutes.

Weight gain

Quite a few large studies have found a correlation between sugar substitute usage and increases in weight and/or BMI. Many claim that certain artificial sweeteners cause consumers to crave sweet treats and then lead them to consuming more calories than those they saved by choosing a sugar substitute over sugar (2).

Unknown health effects

There are not many long term studies on the effects of sugar substitutes on humans. In addition, the unnatural production of many substitutes raises concern with those invested in natural and/or organic foods. Some claim sugar substitutes can cause things as extreme as cancer, although thus far all studies refute this claim (2).

What are the main sugar sweeteners available to me?

There are currently five artificial sweeteners approved for consumption which are listed below in this table (2).

Table I

FDA-approved artificial sweeteners.
Chemical Name
Trade Names
Sweetness (compared with sucrose)
Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI)
Structure
Saccharin (C7H5NO3S)
Sweet N' Low
300×
5 mg/kg
sacc.jpg

Aspartame (C14H18N2O5)
NutraSweet, Equal
160–220×
50 mg/kg
asp.jpg

Acesulfame-Potassium (C4H4KNO4S)
Sunett, Sweet & Safe, Sweet One
200×
15 mg/kg
ace.jpg

Sucralose (C12H19Cl3O8)
Splenda
600×
5 mg/kg
suc.jpg

Neotame (C2OH3ON2O5)
Made by NutraSweet
7 000–13 000×
0.10 mg/kg
neo.jpg


Listed below are these five sweeteners and other necessary information.

Saccharin

Saccharin was the first discovered sugar substitute. It has zero calories and is commonly used in dietary foods and even toothpastes. Sweet ‘n Low is an example of this sugar substitute (1).
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Aspartame

Aspartame is widely debated but incredibly popular sweeteners for diet sodas and other beverages. Equal is an example of this sugar substitute (2).
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Acesulfame-Potassium

Acesulfame-Potassium is a zero calorie sweetener that is popular for cooking due to the fact that it does not break down in heat. While this sweetener is not found in tabletop packets, it is used in many products such as Fresca (2).
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Sucralose

One of the most widely used substitutes in foods from chewing gum to fried food, sucralose is also found in Splenda packets. In addition, it is one of the longest lasting sweeteners (1).
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Neotame

Neotame is similar to aspartame but holds in much higher heat. One of the least used of all the sugar substitutes, Neotame has recently been adopted by Nutrasweet as one of their main products (1).
nutra.jpg

Conclusion

Research is far from conclusive when it comes to artificial sweeteners. These five have been approved by the FDA and are deemed safe to consume. It is advisable to keep up to date on news regarding the questioning of all of these sweeteners to stay informed of the state of the health value of each. Scientists are learning more every day and it is very possible the list of acceptable sugar substitutes for the USA now is much different than it will be even five years from now. It is really an individual choice at this point whether or not to consume these substitutes: if one seeks a natural/organic diet they may be more inclined to omit these. However, if one is aiming to lose weight or limit their intake of sugar, these substitutes may be a viable solution. Stay informed on the latest information no matter what you chose as any decision must be based on the most up-to-date, conclusive studies available.


References

  1. 1. American Dietetic Association. The Truth about Artificial Sweeteners or Sugar Substitutes. http://andevidencelibrary.com/files/Docs/NNSResourceDraft3.pdf. Accessed June 21, 2014.
  2. 2. Brown, R. Artificial Sweeteners: A systematic review of metabolic effects in youth. National Center for Biotechnology Information Website. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2951976/. Updated October 8, 2010. Accessed June 21, 2014.
  3. 3. Null, G. Sugar: Killing us Sweetly. Global Research Website. http://www.globalresearch.ca/sugar-killing-us-sweetly/5367250. Updated March 13, 2014. Accessed June 21, 2014.
  4. 4. Sham, C. Splenda- A Safe and Sweet Alternative to Sugar. eScholarship. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6nn545qf#page-1. Updated 2005. Accessed June 21, 2014.
  5. 5. Tandel K. Sugar substitutes: Health Controversy over perceived benefits. National Center for Biotechnology Information Website. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3198517/. Updated October 2011. Accessed June 21, 2014.