Artificial sweeteners – friend or foe?

Artificial sweeteners cause CONFUSION amongst the general public and health care providers alike. Sweeteners have been around for decades and are used in a wide variety of food and drinks. Almost EVERYONE in developed countries consume sweeteners – whether they know it or not. They are often discussed in the press and are some of the most EXTENSIVELY studied INGREDIENTS in food manufacturing but, still we seem to be BAFFELED by them.

What are artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are a sugar SUBSTITUTE that duplicate the effect of sugar in terms of TASTE but contain less CALORIES. Artificial sweeteners are also known as intense sweeteners as they are much SWEETER than sugar therefore you need to use LESS.

There are 5 artificial sweeteners which are permitted for use in the UK, the most commonly used are saccharin and aspartame.

Another type of sweetener are polyols – such as sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol, isomalta and mannitol. These are used in PROCESSED foods such as ‘diabetic’ products, chocolate, confectionary, ice cream and chewing gum. Polyols are safe to consume but should only be eaten in MODERATION as people vary in their tolerance – excessive consumption can cause diarrhoea, flatulence and a laxative effect.

Safety – should we be concerned?

Old MYTHS about the safety of artificial sweeteners remain a discussion topic to this day. ASPARTAME has been subject to multiple claims against its SAFETY, the most recognised being its supposed links to cancer. Following EXTENSIVE studies and research, over 100 regulatory AGENCIES including the Food Standards Agency and the European Food Safety Authority have deemed aspartame SAFE for human consumption. The only exception is for people suffering from a rare genetic disease phenylketonuria.

It’s a similar story for SACCHARIN, a study in 1960 showed that high levels of saccharin may cause bladder cancer in rats, but it was revealed that saccharin causes cancer in male rats by a mechanism NOT found in humans, therefore, it was classed as SAFE with restricted use.

Cancer Research UK state that ‘any potential cancer risks would be very FAR REACHING due to the vast usage of artificial sweeteners and LARGE STUDIES looking at actual PEOPLE have now provided STRONG evidence that artificial sweeteners are safe’. Yet, the urban myths regarding SAFETY as well as the ‘DANGERS’ of using sweeteners (such as depression, panic attacks, weight gain and allergic reaction) continue via the internet and the media with NO SCIENTIFIC basis.

The Food Standards Agency thoroughly MONITOR the use of artificial sweeteners and SURVEYS are routinely carried out in the general population and specific groups (such as people with diabetes and young children) to make sure that people do not regularly CONSUME more than the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI). This is the amount of an additive – such as artificial sweeteners, that a person may eat or drink each day for an entire LIFETIME without causing ANY known HARM to health.

Can you get something for nothing?

Is this too good to be true? Well, I’m a dietitian who’s NOT SITTING ON THE FENCE. In clinical practice I PROMOTE the use of sweeteners over sugar with the majority of patients for the following reasons:

  1. CALORIES

Artificial sweeteners have virtually NO CALORIES compared to sugar – which provides 4 calories per gram. Therefore, if you’re trying to LOSE WEIGHT, products that contain artificial sweeteners are an attractive option. But, we need to bear in mind that the FAT isn’t going anywhere – its not just SUGAR that provides CALORIES in food, therefore, a product that uses sweeteners may not necessarily be low in CALORIES due to the FAT content. We also need to remember that weight loss needs to be a COMBINATION of HEALTHY EATING and EXERCISE – decreasing our sugar intake isn’t a magic wand. But, VALID RESEARCH has shown that low calorie sweeteners can AID WEIGHT LOSS – they can satisfy our desire for a ‘sugar fix’ and easily save us 100 CALORIES.

  1. DIABETES

Artificial sweeteners offer an OPTION for people with diabetes who need to monitor their CARBOHYDRATE intake. Low calorie sweeteners are very LOW in carbohydrates and do not influence blood GLUCOSE or insulin levels – which mean people with diabetes can enjoy a VARIED diet while controlling their blood glucose levels.

  1. DENTAL HEALTH

Unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners DON’T contribute to TOOTH DECAY and Xylitol BENEFITS dental health by preventing BACTERIA from adhering to the tooth surface.

A word of caution:

How often do we see the words ‘STUDIES’ in which ‘SCIENTSITS say’ in the media? We need to remember that some sources of information can be UNRELIABLE and MISLEADING’. Not all research / studies follow ‘GOLD STANDARDS’ therefore we need to be aware that the information we follow are from REPUTABLE sources such as the sources mentioned above.