By Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDE
Saccharin is the oldest artificial sweetener on the market. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University discovered saccharin in 1879. Saccharin was widely used during the two world wars when there was a sugar shortage; after World War II, its popularity grew when Americans focused more on weight. Saccharin is a white, crystalline powder, 300–500 times sweeter than regular sugar. It’s not metabolized by the body, so it’s excreted in the same form it is ingested.
Saccharin is probably one of the most studied ingredients in our food supply, and also one of the most controversial. In 1977, the FDA proposed a ban against saccharin use but Congress intervened and instead required a warning label be added to products containing saccharin; this warning was revoked in 2000.
Today, health agencies believe saccharin is safe for use in the general population, and it is used in more than 100 countries. The FDA’s Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for saccharin is 5 milligrams per kilogram body weight: That means a 150-pound adult could safely consume 340 milligrams of saccharin every day over his or her lifetime without any adverse effects, or about nine packets daily.
Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than regular sugar and actually is made from sugar. It is made by replacing three hydrogen-oxygen groups on a sucrose molecule with three chlorine atoms. These chlorine atoms help to create a very stable structure.
Sucralose was discovered in 1976 and was approved for general use in 1999. It is found in over 4,500 foods and beverages and has undergone extensive safety testing. Studies have determined sucralose is safe for the general population. It’s a good choice for people who have diabetes because it does not affect blood sugar levels. The ADI for sucralose is 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day, or about 165 packets of sucralose.
The stevia plant belongs to the Asteraceae family and is a cousin of daisies and ragweed. The species of stevia used to sweeten food is called Stevia rebaudiana. It’s native to South America, but it’s also grown in Asia. Stevia gets its sweetness from two chemicals: stevioside and rebaudioside A. While stevia has been sold for years in health-food stores, the FDA rejected the use of stevia in foods in the 1990s; stevia could be sold only as a dietary supplement.
The stevia now on grocery shelves contains the rebaudioside A leaf extract (also known as reb A or rebiana). Two companies, Cargill and Merisant, developed this stevia extract and in 2008 petitioned the FDA to give it GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status, to which the FDA agreed. Whole-leaf stevia has not been granted GRAS status or approved by the FDA as a sweetener.
Rebiana is about 200–400 times sweeter than regular sugar. Currently, it’s used in tabletop sweeteners, beverages, and many food products. One packet of a stevia-based sweetener contains about 0–1 calorie, and roughly 1–4 grams of carb, depending on the brand. Some brands contain erythritol, a sugar alcohol, or dextrose, a type of sugar. These are added to provide bulk and texture.
Stevia leaf extract has been studied, and no significant adverse effects have been reported. There have been some reports of bloating, nausea, and diarrhea, and it may leave an aftertaste or taste bitter. The ADI is 4 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day; this means that a 150-pound person can safely consume 816 milligrams of stevia leaf extract every day for his or her lifetime without any adverse effects, or roughly 40 packets of tabletop stevia sweetener per day.
Monk fruit extract, also known as luo han guo, is native to the forests of southern China. The fruit itself looks like a melon but actually is a gourd. Monk fruit grows on vines and is about the size of a lemon.
Food manufacturers have been able to extract compounds of this fruit, called mogrosides, which are antioxidants that are about 300 times sweeter than sugar. The consistency of this sweetener is very much like granulated sugar. Because it’s only grown in the southern regions of China, it is quite expensive to cultivate. The extraction of the mogrosides is very involved and takes a long time, adding to the expense. And Chinese law prevents monk fruit and its genetic material from leaving the country, meaning it cannot be grown elsewhere.
Available brand names of monk fruit extract include Monk Fruit in the Raw, Lakanto Monk Fruit Sweetener, Health Garden Monk Fruit Sweetener, and Skinnygirl Monk Fruit Extract Liquid Sweetener. One 0.8-gram packet of Monk Fruit in the Raw contains less than 1 gram of carbohydrate and 0 calories.
Mogrosides have antioxidant properties, appear to have anticancer properties and may have the ability to prevent diabetes complications. While there are no known reported adverse effects, it has not undergone extensive testing. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recommends using this sweetener with caution because there are no long-term studies to support its safety. No ADI has been set yet.
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