By Morgan Lord
The bittersweet truth about artificial sweeteners
Between the salt shaker and the Heinz 57 sits a box jammed with pastel packets. Thinking I’ll dodge a few calories, I dump one into my coffee. If you do the same every morning or slurp a Diet Coke midday, welcome to the club. According to a 2006 survey from Mintel Reports, 61 percent of U.S. women use artificial sweeteners daily, and 50 percent drink diet soda. But while the three biggies – saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose – contain hardly any calories, one glance at America’s collective flab leaves you wondering if they’re doing anyone any good.
What exactly is in these packets? The pink one, Sweet’N Low, contains saccharin. Your grandma’s sugar substitute, saccharin was discovered in 1879 and is the result of a chemical reaction that produces methyl anthranilate (yum!). It has only 1/8 calorie per teaspoon versus sugar’s 15, yet it’s 300 times sweeter than the natural stuff. The downside of saccharin – used in toothpastes like Colgate and Crest and the diet soda Tab – is obvious; it has a bitter, chemical aftertaste.
The blue packets, labeled Equal or NutraSweet, contain slightly less bitter tasting aspartame, which is derived from the amino acids L–aspartic acid and L–phenylalanine. On diner counters and in diet foods since 1981, aspartame contains 24 calories per teaspoon, but because it’s 180 times sweeter than sugar, a little goes a long way: A can of Diet Coke supplies less than 1–calorie from aspartame, while the high–fructose corn syrup in Coca–Cola Classic packs 100.
Finally, in the yellow packet comes Splenda, which gets its sweetness from sucralose. As it says on the label, sucralose – which has been around since 1998 and is used in ice cream, sauces, and jellies – is made from sugar and tastes closest to the real thing. To create it, food chemists substitute chlorine atoms for three hydrogen–oxygen groups on the sucrose molecule. That switch makes Splenda a tongue–tingling 600 times sweeter than sugar.
As the obesity epidemic rages on, chemists continue to search for the perfect sugar substitute. Next up for FDA approval is Alitame, which is similar to aspartame but 10 times sweeter, with no?aftertaste.
Can these chemical concoctions really be good for you? Despite a handful of scary studies back in the ‘70s that linked saccharin to increased rates of cancer in rats, there’s little evidence that artificial sweeteners cause problems in humans. One exception: A 2001 study from the journal Headache found that aspartame can trigger head pain. Experts believe that the phenylalanine in aspartame has a negative impact on neurotransmitters. If you’re prone to headaches (especially skull–splitting migraines), avoid foods with aspartame or phenylalanine in their ingredient lists.
As a precaution, the FDA has established maximum intakes for sugar substitutes – the amount you can ingest every 24 hours with no adverse effects. The rules: A 150–pound adult can scarf eight and a half packets of Sweet’N Low, 87 packets of Equal or NutraSweet, or 25 packets of Splenda daily.
The Real Deal
Okay, so faux sugars won’t do you any serious harm. And they look even better when you consider the problems that sugar can cause. If you get more than 15 percent of your calories from foods and drinks with added sugar (versus naturally sweet foods like fruit), you increase your chances of mood swings, cavities, even grogginess: A recent study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that downing an energy drink containing 42 grams of sugar left subjects sleepier and less alert than if they hadn’t had any sugar at all. And, of course, too much sugar can result in excess pounds. Overindulging causes sharp increases in blood sugar, triggering the release of the hormone insulin, which may encourage the body to store fat.
You’d think that artificial sweeteners, which don’t cause blood sugar spikes, would lead to slimmer middles. Not necessarily so. One Harvard Medical School study did show that aspartame helped women maintain weight loss over time by helping them cut calories. But a 2004 study in the International Journal of Obesity suggests that when we offer our bodies sweet diet drinks but give them no calories, they crave real sugar even more. “Substitutes may not signal the same satiety hormones as sugar, making it easier to overeat, ” says Lona Sandon, R.D., assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
There’s also no proof that substitutes reduce the risk of diabetes, says Ann Fittante, R.D., coauthor of The Sugar Solution Cookbook. That’s likely because people who consume artificial sweeteners often eat a lot of sugar as well. You know – you “Save” 100 calories by drinking diet soda, so now you can have a cookie.
The bottom line: Most nutritionists agree that you’ll end up healthier and more satisfied eating a few squares of chocolate after lunch than feasting on artificially sweetened foods all day. And when you face your morning coffee, remember that sugar delivers just 15 calories per teaspoon–which you can burn by sleeping for 13 minutes.