Nonnutritive Sweeteners: Help or Hindrance? (Part 2)

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Last week I started to take another look at the various nonnutritive sweeteners that are available on the market.

Sweeteners, in general, tend to be shrouded with a cloud of controversy: on the one hand, people are concerned about “artificial” chemicals use in foods and beverages. On the other hand, sugar and other nutritive sweeteners are also perceived as being “bad,” containing empty calories and wreaking havoc with our weight, our teeth, and our blood glucose.

Yet a desire for sugar is somehow ingrained in humans. Sugar, despite all of its shortcomings, can make us feel happy due to its effects on brain chemistry (how many people do you know who reach for a celery stick when they’re upset?). So is there a sweetener out there that tastes good and makes us happy, but that isn’t fattening and doesn’t cause cavities and other possible health problems? Let’s keep looking.

  • Acesulfame-K (Sweet One, Sunnett). Also called acesulfame potassium, this sweetener was discovered in 1967 and approved by the FDA for use in 1988. It’s 200 times sweeter than sugar and chemically is similar to saccharin. Acesulfame-K holds up to heat very well, making it suitable for use in baked goods and beverages, as well as candy, soft drinks, desserts, and pudding. Also, this sweetener tends to have a “clean” taste, unlike some other sweeteners that can leave an aftertaste. It’s often used along with other nonnutritive sweeteners in products. It has no effect on blood glucose or blood lipid levels. More than 90 studies have demonstrated its safety and there have been no known documented health effects. The ADI (acceptable daily intake) for acesulfame-K is 15 milligrams (mg) per kilogram (kg) of body weight.

    One of the controversies surrounding acesulfame-K has to do with methylene chloride. This chemical is a carcinogen and is used as a solvent when making the sweetener (methylene chloride is also used to decaffeinate coffee, strip paint, and act as a propellant!). Long-term exposure to methylene chloride can cause kidney and liver damage, headaches, central nervous system depression, confusion, and cancer. The FDA has noted that based on submitted data, no detectable levels of this chemical could be found in acesulfame-K, and the agency thereby deemed it safe for consumption. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI; the organization that publishes Nutrition Action Healthletter) points out studies done in animals linking acesulfame-K to lymphomas, leukemia, and breast tumors in rats, and they have petitioned the FDA to review the data and reconsider its recommendations.

  • Sucralose (Splenda, Nevella) Sucralose made its debut in 1998 as a tabletop sweetener and was approved as a “general purpose sweetener” in 1999. This is the only nonnutritive sweetener that’s actually made from sugar (three chlorine atoms are substituted for three hydroxyl groups on the sugar molecule). Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar, has no unpleasant aftertaste, and is extremely stable under heat, making it ideal for baking and cooking. It’s also been extensively studied — more than 100 studies over a 20-year period have documented its safety. More than 4500 foods and beverages contain sucralose. The ADI for sucralose is 5 mg/kg body weight.

    As with most nonnutritive sweeteners, some health concerns have arisen around this product. The Splenda Web site explains that even though sucralose is made from sugar, it’s not a natural substance. And claims (albeit unfounded) abound that sucralose, along with other nonnutritive sweeteners, may be to blame for weight gain, multiple sclerosis, lupus, diabetes, and more. Yet, there are no studies that support these claims. The concern surrounding sucralose’s safety has to do with the fact that it contains chlorine. However, chlorine is an electrolyte that is needed in the body to help maintain fluid balance. And it’s found in many foods that we eat (including salt — hence the term sodium chloride). Sucralose isn’t absorbed or metabolized by the body, and it doesn’t accumulate in fatty tissue. CSPI deems sucralose to be safe (and they’re very particular about food additives!).

  • Neotame. Although approved by the FDA in 2002, this sweetener is relatively unknown because it hasn’t been used extensively yet in foods and beverages. It’s actually made from the same two amino acids that make up aspartame (aspartic acid and phenylalanine), but it’s not broken down in the body the same way as aspartame. Neotame is extremely sweet (about 8,000 times sweeter than sugar) so obviously only a little bit is needed to sweeten things up. More than 130 studies have confirmed its safety. The ADI for neotame is 2 mg/kg body weight. So far, there doesn’t seem to be any adverse effects from neotame. Perhaps we’ll learn more if and when it’s used more widely.
  • More on sweeteners next week, including a look at stevia!

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