Deadly or Delicious: The Truth Behind Artificial Sweeteners

When Pepsi bothers to go through all the trouble of printing on their Diet Pepsi packaging that they no longer use aspartame, you know something is up. For years artificial sweeteners swept the candy, beverage, and snack industries, proudly crowing about their lack of calories and their impressive benefits. Don’t want to rot your teeth out? Chew gum with aspartame. Don’t want to aggravate your diabetes? Drink your coffee with Sweet’n Low. In recent years, however, a storm has rocked the artificial sweetener world. Widespread fear about sweeteners increasing the risk of cancer and other troubling conditions have flooded the media. Now you often find people checking the labels of sweetened goods for names like aspartame and sucralose- names that once might have instilled relief, but which now compel revulsion. So where has this reversal come from? Where did we learn to fear these additives, and should we have ever trusted them in the first place? Let’s take a look at some of the most popular artificial sweeteners to determine whether we should truly be labeling them as deadly- or delicious.


Aspartame, the Hated

First synthesized in 1965 and sold under the name “NutraSweet,” aspartame has ever since had a target on its back. Subject to Internet hoaxes, medical controversies, and government hearings, it seems as though everyone and their grandma has had a go at aspartame. Despite grandma’s best efforts, aspartame has triumphantly been approved by over 90 different countries for human consumption and is described by the FDA as “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives that the agency has ever approved.” Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than regular sugar and was not, as some sources would have you believe, initially developed as ant poison. It was actually discovered accidentally during a trial to assess an anti-ulcer drug.

To “overdose” on aspartame, according to the FDA’s suggested amount of 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, you would have to drink over 21 cans of diet soda a day, and no, there is no link between consumption of aspartame and cancer either way. The most commonly reported symptom of aspartame is headaches, but studies have shown that the consumed doses could not have caused the purported achy heads. However, people with the genetic condition phenylketonuria are warned to steer clear of aspartame, as one of its breakdown products includes phenylalanine. For the rest of you? You’ll be just fine.


Sucralose, the Yellow Packet

Ah, Splenda. Remember how sweet aspartame was in comparison to table sugar? Well, sucralose-based sweeteners are three times as sweet as that. Splen-did, indeed. Splenda, along with other big brand names like SucraPlus and Nevella, are cavity-free substitutes for sugar. Diabetics, rejoice: sucralose has also been determined to be safe for your consumption, as it doesn’t affect your insulin levels. As with aspartame, the discovery of sucralose was an accident. In 1976 Shashikant Phadnis was told to “test” a chlorinated sugar compound, and, mishearing, he tasted it instead. Phadnis was one lucky scientist that day, and his accidental good fortune would spill out into the food and beverage industry like a tidal wave.

The FDA, along with other international food safety regulatory organizations, has deemed sucralose safe for human consumption at a dosage of nine milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. A statement was released saying that “In determining the safety of sucralose, the FDA reviewed data from more than 110 studies in humans and animals. Many of the studies were designed to identify possible toxic effects, including carcinogenic, reproductive, and neurological effects. No such effects were found, and FDA’s approval is based on the finding that sucralose is safe for human consumption.” Furthermore, sucralose barely even touches your system; only around 2-8% of the sucralose you consume is even metabolized by your body. The rest? You say goodbye to it when you… visit the john.


Saccharin, the Rat Killer

Perhaps the most frightening, and legitimate, scare from artificial sweeteners came about as a result of rat test trials with saccharin. Saccharin was initially discovered and produced in 1879, when Constantin Fahlberg noticed a sweet taste on his hand after working with a particular compound that day at the Johns Hopkins University. Commercialized quickly and utilized immensely during the sugar shortages of World War I, saccharin was a table favorite despite numerous investigations and controversies until the 70s. In the 1970s, studies done on laboratory rats uncovered an association between high doses of saccharin and the development of bladder cancer.

You can imagine the outrage these studies would have incurred in consumers and government officials alike- bans were suggested, more research demanded, and so on. Saccharin products were even required to wear the following badge until 2000: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. The product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” In 2000? It was discovered that the bladder cancer in rats was caused by a mechanism specific to rats only, and which has nothing to do with humans. Today saccharin in the third most popular artificial sweetener, and needless to say, no longer has to declare itself as hazardous.


Stevia, the Plant Extract

The freshest-faced artificial sweetener on the block is actually the one that has been around the longest. Stevia is an artificial sweetener derived from the plant called Stevia rebaudiana, which has been used by the South American Guarani people for over 1,500 years. The active compounds of stevia have up to 150 times the sweetness of sugar and offer a more favorable alternative for our organic-minded consumers. However, the legal status of stevia extracts that function as supplements and food additives is not as well agreed upon as our other sweeteners. Stevia was even banned in the United States in 1991 when early studies found it might be carcinogenic.

As of 2008, certain extract variants were approved for use as food additives in the United States, while the European Union approved them in 2011. Japan, on the other hand, has been using stevia for decades, and China since 2006. As for the rest of the world? Most everyone from Brazil to Australia has approved some sort of strain of the stevia extract, although planting regulations and regulations concerning the leaves themselves vary greatly. While the FDA has not approved whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts, the approved variants have quickly been latched onto by brands like Pepsi, creating artificial sweeteners under names like PureVia, Truvia, and Rebiana.


Okay, So… What’s the Real Scare?

Artificial sweeteners probably don’t seem so deadly to you anymore. That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t have questionable or downright negative implications for your system. Sugar is approved all over the world for human consumption, but it’s exactly what we’re trying to get rid of, isn’t it? Artificial sweeteners are often hundreds of times sweeter than sugar itself, but without any of the caloric intake. This may seem like a huge boon in theory, but it can actually cause issues with the way your body perceives sweet things. Instead of getting the calories your body expects and prepares for when it encounters an artificial sweetener, it gets nothing- nothing that would normally balance out the way that it sets itself up for consuming sugar. You may also find that things you normally would consider sweet or appetizing have become tasteless and stale, as, indeed, they pale in comparison to the overwhelmingly sweet flavor of stevia or aspartame.

And, of course, you have the psychological impact to any diet that you find yourself on: if you’re consuming artificial sweeteners, you’re avoiding sugar, right? And that means you can have that extra patty on your burger or that second dessert after dinner, right? Or that cookie you weren’t going to have originally? Or that bag of chips that looks so appealing? It’s easy to overcompensate on a diet because you think you have extra room for a goodie due to choosing an artificially sweetened soda or snack. Many of these sweeteners could also do for more and more thorough rounds of testing, and testing within their contexts, as well. Aspartame on its own may have no negative effects, but what about aspartame combined with caffeine and other chemical compounds? Does a diet soda pose a much greater risk than a scoop of aspartame sweetener itself?


Deadly or Delicious

Ultimately, it’s best to not assume you are doing yourself a huge favor by consuming that diet soda instead of a regular one. You can allow yourself a pat on the back for avoiding the dental cavities that are associated with sugar, and you can be glad for the lack of a caloric intake, but that’s about it. If you’re on a diet, consider your artificially sweetened goodie equally disastrous as your regularly-sweetened one. The effects may be different, but at least it will keep you from reaching for a second one- and that second one, we propose, is the true problem. And don’t forget to eat your veggies. There aren’t any regulations against that.