Artificial Sweeteners: Good or Bad?

By: Dr. Theja Lanka

Everybody would love to be healthy and body weight is a big part of that. It can be affected by everything from food to physical activity to sleep habits and can increase the risk of many medical problems including diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Most of us eat at least 2-3 times a day so it makes sense to focus on what we are putting into our bodies.

Of the many ingredients in food, sugar is the easiest to identify. It’s in everything from soda to yogurt to “healthy” protein bars. The holy grail of food science would be to have something that is sweet like sugar but without the calories. Enter low-calorie sweeteners. They are at least 200 times sweeter than sugar with few if any calories and are already in many products from diet sodas to sugar-free ice cream.

Artificial sweeteners were first developed in the 1870s when a coal scientist accidentally licked his fingers and got a sweet taste. Thus, saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low) was discovered. It’s usually seen in pink packets and was actually used during World War I when sugar prices were rising. Next is aspartame (Equal) which was developed in the 1960s when once again a chemist accidentally licked his fingers and got a sweet taste. It’s usually found in diet sodas (especially diet Coke/Pepsi) and blue packets. Sucralose (Splenda) was developed in the 1970s and is commonly found in yellow packets. It is heat stable so you can bake with it. You could have your cake and eat it too! Lastly, Stevia is a natural sweetener extracted from a plant, is commonly found in green packets, and was recently approved in 2008.

So how do these options fit into our quest for a healthy weight and lifestyle? Are they safe? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found these sweeteners to be safe for consumption. Aspartame, for example, has more than 100 studies supporting its safety and very little credible evidence to support a concern that it causes cancer. According to the FDA, one could safely consume up to 50mg/kg/day. In other words, if you weigh 200 pounds, you could drink 24, 12-oz cans of Diet Coke every day and still be under the limit. While I hope you’re not drinking that much, this is to show that if you are drinking 2 cans per day, you are well under the recommended limit.

While diet drinks can be an effective tool in weight loss, there isn’t conclusive research establishing a link between them and the chances of developing diabetes or hypertension. Regardless, artificial sweeteners like all things are best used in moderation. One does have to be aware of the tendency to compensate for calories saved. It’s common to think “I’ll get a small diet soda (saving -140 calories) and add a small waffle fries (-330 calories) because I just saved some calories.” In the end, you will have eaten more calories than you saved with the diet drink! Sometimes, just drinking water is the healthiest; but if you really need a diet root beer, consume in moderation