In today's world, many dieters and bodybuilders rely on artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes to sweeten shakes and other food without raising their caloric intake. These sugar substitutes serve the obvious advantage of having little or no caloric value, meaning that they can not be processed as energy by the human body.
Many of these substitutes have been crafted and modified through the last several decades to taste better and even survive the heat of an oven, allowing them to be used in baked goods such as cookies.
Modern substitutes taste great, and over the last few years have become available at much more affordable prices. This sounds great right? Real sugar has a caloric value of four calories per gram, so who wouldn't want to use a great tasting zero calorie sweetener?
Many nutritionists and doctors alike have hesitated in declaring these alternate sweeteners "king" to natural sugar. Studies have suggested that negative side effects may result from the use of artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame and Saccharin.
Other sweeteners such as Sucralose that have recently entered the market have simply not been studied enough to determine if and what side effects they may cause.
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It is hard for medical professionals to make general statements about artificial sweeteners because unlike the past, in any given grocery store one can easily expect to find at least five different types of sugar substitutes. I have chosen the most popular natural and artificial sugar substitutes to examine in this article.
The first substitute that we will look at is Aspartame. Aspartame is 180 times sweeter than sugar and is popularly marketed under such brand names as "Equal" and "NutraSweet".1 Aspartame has a caloric value similar to sugar but because it is so much sweeter it can be marketed as a "zero calorie" sweetener.
For example, if a normal soda contained 40 grams of sugar (160 calories), the Aspartame equivalent would amount to less than one calorie since it is 180 times sweeter. Thus, because such a small amount of Aspartame is needed for most applications, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) allows it to be marketed as containing zero calories.
Problems and Research
Aspartame has been a topic of concern since its initial release in 1974. Apart from the common objections of artificial sugars, such as the amount of processing that it takes to make these sweeteners, many Aspartame specific concerns have arisen.
In 1995 the FDA released a document containing the 92 known symptoms of Aspartame, and the Aspartame containing products that caused these symptoms.
The most prominent of these include headache, dizziness, mood change, vomiting, abdominal pain, change in vision, diarrhea, seizures, memory loss, and overall weakness. These reported reactions occurred most prominently with the consumption of diet soft drinks, puddings, and the use of the table top sweetener packets.2
These symptoms have caused Aspartame to be classified by doctors and medical advice sites as "the most dangerous substance on the market that is added to foods" 3. In fact, Aspartame can be held responsible for over 75 percent of the reported reactions associated with food additives. 3
The dangerous qualities of Aspartame extend much further than its reported short term symptoms. The ingestion of Aspartame can trigger or worsen brain tumors, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, mental retardation, Lymphoma, birth defects, Fibromyalgia, and diabetes. 3
Aspartame is made up of phenylalanine and aspartic acid 1. Phenylalanine is an amino acid that is normally found in the brain. Some people have a genetic disorder known as Phenylketonuria or PKU, which is when the body cannot metabolize phenylalanine. 3
This disease can cause high levels of phenylalanine in the brain, which can ultimately lead to death. The ingestion of Aspartame has been proven to lead to excess levels of phenylalanine in the brain even in persons who do not have Phenylketonuria. 3
While Aspartame has many negative side affects, its early introduction into the sugar substitute market has allowed it to remain dominant.
Most mainstream soda companies use Aspartame as their zero calorie diet soda sweetener. However, Aspartame is not always suitable for baking because heat can cause it to break down and loose sweetness. 4 For this reason, most products that use Aspartame consist of liquids and other non baked goods such as puddings, yogurts, and gelatins.
The next substance that we will look at is Saccharin. Saccharin was discovered in 1879 by Constantine Fahlberg. 5 It is popularly marketed under the names Sweet and Low, Sweet Twin, Sweet'N Low, and Necta Sweet.
Saccharin is a zero calorie sweetener and is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar. 6 The makers of Saccharin claim that it is the oldest and best researched sweetener.
Problems and Research
Today - when many people think of Saccharin - the first thing that may come to mind is the 1970's study that concluded that Saccharin could be carcinogenic (cancer causing).
In 1977 research showed that Saccharin could cause bladder tumors in male rats. However, since 1977 more than 30 studies have been done and proven that these lab rat results were not transferable to humans.
Also, the original study has since been criticized because Saccharin doses that were several hundred times greater than the doses that humans popularly ingest were used on the lab rats. 6
Furthermore, in 2000 the National Toxicology Program concluded that Saccharin should be removed from the list of potential carcinogens. 6
Due to this 1970's study, products containing Saccharin were formerly required to contain a disclaimer stating that Saccharin could possibly be carcinogenic. As a result of this disclaimer, Saccharin lost some of the popularity that it enjoyed before the study was released.
Aspartame was introduced and used to replace many soft drinks that contained Saccharin. However, now that counter studies have been produced and more research has surfaced, Saccharin is widely thought to be better for the body than its competitor Aspartame.
Despite being safer than Aspartame, Saccharin is still an artificial sweetener meaning that it has been manufactured and processed, something that many nutritionists find to be detrimental to the human body. Saccharin has also been known to cause allergic reactions and other mild side effects. 6
Saccharin is popularly used today in ice cream, toothpaste, and table top sweeteners. 7 Since the release of modern studies that suggest that Saccharin does not cause cancer, Saccharin has gained popularity again and is currently being used by more and more companies in their food and drink products. Saccharin can be used in baking, as it will not break down with heat. 8
Next we will examine Sucralose. Sucralose is commonly marketed under the brand name Splenda. Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar and is created by substituting three chlorine atoms for three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar molecule. 9 It is the only low calorie/zero calorie sweetener that is made from sugar.
Problems and Research
Over 100 studies have been conducted in the past 20 years that confirm the safety of Sucralose use.10
However, several people have complained about minor side effects such as blurred vision, water retention, high blood pressure, and other allergic reactions.11 So is it safe or not?
The truth is that we really don't know whether it is safe or not. According to OB/GYN Marcelle Pick, "There are no long-term studies of the side effects of Splenda in humans". 12 Sucralose (Splenda) is so new that it is hard to say whether it is safe or not.
Sucralose is marketed as a "natural" substitute; the FDA allows this marketing because of its loose definition of the term "natural". Sucralose in fact shares more molecular similarities with chlorocarbons such as pesticides than it does with normal sugar.
So even though it is marketed as being "natural" it is more molecularly related to a pesticide than a sugar.12 I am in no way saying that Sucralose will harm you as a pesticide would, I am simply saying that "natural" does not always mean "healthy".
So while studies that show side effects or suggest negative reactions might not be prevalent at the present time, caution should still be taken before ingesting Sucralose, as it has not yet been thoroughly researched.
While Aspartame and Saccharin still reign supreme over the diet soft drink world, Sucralose has become an extremely popular sweetener in a variety of modern items.
Sucralose is commonly used in baked goods and baking mixes, cheeses, chewing gum, coffee and tea, condiments, fruit ices, sauces, hard candy, snacks, and other products.
Sucralose can substitute sugar in almost any situation, as it does not break down with heat, and can be stored for extended periods of time.10
Xylitol is a five-carbon sugar alcohol that is used as a substitute for sugar. It is naturally occurring and can be found in the fibers of fruits and vegetables such as berries, corn husks, mushrooms, and oats.
It has about the same sweetness as sugar (Sucrose), but has a 40% lower caloric value. 13
Problems and Research
Xylitol is thought to be a safe, natural substitute to sugar. It is naturally occurring in the sense that humans do not need to alter its structure (as with Sucralose).
Xylitol is thought to be able to help the human body with such things as building immunities to diseases, protecting against chronic degenerative disease, and even helping with anti-ageing. 14
Xylitol is often recommended by dentists as an alternative to sugar. It is non-fermentable meaning that it cannot be converted to acid by oral bacteria. Thus, it can help to restore the correct alkaline/acid balance in the mouth. 14
While Xylitol is generally regarded as being safe, some side effects have been reported. Side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, flatulence and gastrointestinal upset have been reported, though they usually are mild and infrequently occurring. 15
While Xylitol is relatively safe and has no aftertaste, it is not popularly used in everyday baked goods. However, Xylitol has risen to dominating status in the sugarless gum market.
Xylitol is used by such brands of gum as Trident, and Stride. Xylitol is also being used in several major toothpastes.16
Last, we will look at the natural herb Stevia. Stevia is a South African herb that has been used for hundreds of years. The Stevia herb leaves can be used to produce a sweetener that is 30 times sweeter than sugar.
The body does not metabolize Stevia so it has no caloric value and does not affect blood glucose levels, rendering it a safe choice for diabetics.
Problems and Research
There seems to be a difference in opinion on the safety of Stevia. Many sources promote the use of Stevia as a safe, natural sweetener that has been used effectively for centuries. Others however, claim that Stevia could have possible side effects and dangers.
For example, Steviacafe.net tells how Stevia skeptics claim that Stevia could interfere with the body's natural carbohydrate absorption. They also claim that Stevia could cause cancer in humans, although no tests have confirmed this assertion as of yet.
Despite this, Stevia is still generally placed on the side of safe sweeteners, opposing the side of Saccharin, Aspartame, and Sucralose. 17
Stevia is currently marketed under brands such as "Sweet Leaf" and "Truvia". It has not been incorporated into many mainstream products as of now, but it is gaining popularity as an every day sweetener. Stevia conversions for baking can be found, and it will not break down with heat.
- Low Carb Sweeteners
- Evaporated Cane Juice
- Fruit Juice
- Rice Syrup
- Licorice Root
- Vegetable Glycerin
- Sugar Alcohols
- Maple Syrup
- Barley Malt
- Refined Sugar
- High Fructose Sweeteners
Now that you have read the facts on these sugar substitutes I hope that you are a little more educated about them. As you can see most of these substitutes have their good and bad qualities and it is ultimately up to you to choose which one works the best with your body.
I personally have used all of these sweeteners at one point or another, and I have never noticed any short term side effects. That being said, I would probably advise against Aspartame and Saccharin, and push the reader towards something more natural such as Stevia or Xylitol (or other sugar alcohols).
I personally use Stevia in all of my protein shakes. It took a little while to get used to the taste, but now I prefer Stevia to normal sugar.
If you are absolutely opposed to any side effects then the truth is that none of these substitutes are probably going to be a great choice for you. While Stevia and sugar alcohols are generally seen as safe products, side effects do exist.
Fruit is a great sweetener for many things, especially for someone concerned with processed additives. Fruit does contain sugar in the forms of Fructose and Sucrose, but this sugar is also combined with a large amount of fiber and vitamins (depending on the fruit), making it a much better choice for the health conscious person.
For those of you who are not diabetic or concerned with calories, I would recommend using a natural sweetener such as honey or fruit to be on the safe side of these potential side effects. However, if you are diabetic or if dieting is your top priority, I would encourage you to check out Stevia and Xylitol as they appear to be the safest zero/low calorie sugar substitutes currently on the market.