To be human is to enjoy sweet foods: Even newborns have been shown to exhibit a preference for sweet tastes. As a result, people have long sought sweet additions to their diet.
Thousands of years ago, we discovered honey. Later, we learned how to get sugar from sugar cane and sugar beets. In 1879, the first of the artificial sweeteners — saccharin — was developed. It became popular in the early 1900s during wartime because it was cheap to produce and regular sugar was scarce. Since then, with obesity on the rise, more people who are watching their diet have turned to a growing number of artificial sweeteners as a way to cut calories.
In 1981, aspartame, marketed as NutraSweet, was approved. More recently, acesulfame-K (Sunett) and sucralose (Splenda) became available. These artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. You can find products containing artificial sweeteners from one end of your supermarket to the other. Aspartame alone is found in sodas, cereal, ice cream, jelly, maple syrup, ketchup, yogurt, and many other foods.
However, artificial sweeteners have not provided a magic solution to America’s weight problem. In 1960, about 45 percent of Americans were overweight, a figure that rose to 66 percent by 2004. Some research suggests that artificial sweeteners may actually encourage weight gain. And some people fear even scarier health effects of artificial sweeteners — namely, cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned a sweetener called cyclamate in 1969 due to concerns over bladder cancer based on research in lab animals, and for several decades starting in 1977, products with saccharin contained a warning label referring to cancer in animals.
A Closer Look at Artificial Sweeteners
“Artificial sweeteners do provide a low- or no-calorie alternative to regular sugar in a number of foods, [and] provide some flexibility for people concerned about their weight, especially diabetics,” says Marisa Moore, MBA, RD, an Atlanta-area dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
However, you can’t eat all the artificially sweetened foods that you want as part of a healthy diet. You still have to pay attention to portion control. Take sugar-free cookies, for instance. “Those products are still made with flour and often fat,” says Moore, “so you’re going to get a good number of calories from other ingredients.”
The amount needed to sweeten foods is so small that artificial sweeteners add virtually no calories to products they’re used in. However, there have been other concerns:
- Artificial sweeteners and cancer. According to the FDA, saccharin is no longer regarded as a cause of cancer, and products containing saccharin no longer require a warning label. Research with hundreds of thousands of people found that aspartame wasn’t linked to brain cancer, lymphoma, or leukemia, as was theorized. And acesulfame K, sucralose, and another artificial sweetener called neotame didn’t show evidence that they cause cancer in dozens of safety studies, according to the National Institutes of Health.
- Artificial sweeteners and weight. Some studies have associated artificial sweeteners with greater hunger and food consumption, but others have shown the opposite effect. A 2008 study, however, found that people who reported drinking more than 21 artificially sweetened beverages per week had almost double the risk of overweight or obesity years later. This doesn’t prove that the artificial sweeteners caused weight gain, but it does raise questions about them.
The take-home message? Use products containing sweeteners in moderation, as part of an overall healthy diet. The FDA’s acceptable daily intake for aspartame is equal to a whopping 18 cans of diet soda for a 150-pound person; for saccharin it’s about 9 to 12 packets of sweetener; and for sucralose, less than six diet sodas. But no one says you actually need to — or should — consume this much.