Are Artificial Sweeteners Healthy? (Part II of the Sugar Series)

Sweeteners 24 Diner Austin, Texas

This post is Part II of a three-part series on understanding sugars, artificial sweeteners and natural sweeteners. If you missed Part I, click here.

Most of us who consider ourselves “health-conscious” avoid regular table sugar. Instead, we reach for an artificial sweetener, like Sweet ‘N LowEqual or Splenda to drop into our coffee or iced tea. I mean, why not? Artificial sweeteners seem to offer the best of both worlds: they’re sweeter than sugar without raising blood sugar levels and without the calories! I love Splenda and have been known to add 2-3 packets into one cup of coffee!

So this begs the question: What exactly is this stuff? Is it safe?

The short answer is: well yes, sort of. There’s a lot of conflicting info out there about artificial sweeteners and what they do to the human body. Here’s the info that I found out on the “Big Three” (Sweet ‘N Low, Equal & Splenda). I’ll give my impressions at the end!

1. Sweet ‘N Low

While the brand name is  “Sweet ‘N Low”, these little pink packets are actually filled with a substance called saccharin, first discovered in 1878. It is 100 times sweeter than regular table sugar (sucrose). Saccharin has been linked to bladder cancer in lab rats, so up until 2000, packets of Sweet N Low included a related warning. In 2000, this warning was removed from all packets after scientists discovered that it was the specific body chemistry of rats that (in combination with the saccharin) was causing the bladder cancer.[1] You can check out the FDA regulations on saccharin here.

2. Equal

Artificial Sweetener - Equal

While the brand name is “Equal”, these little blue packets are actually filled with aspartame, dextrose and maltodextrin. Equal also used to be called “Nutrasweet”. It is 200 times sweeter than regular table sugar. When you digest aspartame, your body breaks it down into three different chemicals:  aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol. These chemicals can be broken down further to create formaldehyde and formic acid. [2] Phenylalanine can be dangerous for people with a rare genetic disease called phenylketonuria because their bodies cannot properly metabolize it. Methanol is also a toxic chemical, but when produced in small quantities by the body is generally harmless.[3] In 1996, after much controversy and debate, the Food & Drug Administration approved the use of aspartame in all foods. However, there is still much debate over whether aspartame is safe. This is specifically because studies have shown that there are health side effects associated with the consumption of aspartame. These include, but are not limited to, heart problems, hypertension, headaches, increased hunger and even depression.[4][5] You can check out the FDA regulations on aspartame here.

3. Splenda

While the brand name is Splenda, these little yellow packets contain sucralose, dextrose and maltodextrin. Splenda is 600 times sweeter than table sugar.[6] Since sucralose is Splenda’s distinguishing feature, you should know that very little of the sucralose you ingest when eating Splenda is actually metabolized (unlike aspartame). This has made sucralose an increasingly more popular sweetener as compared to aspartame. Also setting sucralose apart from other sweeteners is the fact that you can cook with it; it can be heated and there’s also granulated Splenda products specifically made for baking/cooking. Splenda came under fire when a 2008 Duke study was released showing that when Splenda was ingested by lab rats -at amounts within FDA-guidelines- the rats showed (i) reduced gut bacteria (that’s the good bacteria needed to process foods) and (ii) weight gain [7]. However, since these results have not been found in humans, there has been no change in the FDA’s outlook and Splenda is still deemed safe for human consumption. You can check out the FDA regulations on sucralose here.

A Quick Note on Dextrose & Maltodextrin

I want to briefly address dextrose & maltodextrin, since they’re used in both Equal and Splenda. Both of these ingredients are used as “bulking agents” in these sweeteners. Dextrose is actually just an isomer (same molecular chemistry but different molecular structure) of glucose.[8]  Maltodextrin is made up of a molecular chain of dextrose molecules, so it is effectively glucose as well [9]. You can find maltodextrin in a lot of the sodas you drink and in other processed foods. Both dextrose and maltodextrin are easily metabolized by your body just as glucose is, so there’s no new health issues here. Because both of these ingredients are used in very small quantities in the production of Equal and Splenda, the sweeteners are still considered “calorie-free”.[10][11] However, please note that this doesn’t mean that Equal and Splenda are “no carb”; since they contain glucose they have come carbs in them, just in very small quantities.

My Two Cents

In the process of researching for this post, I was shocked to learn that each of the three sweeteners I use on a regular, daily basis have been associated with health safety concerns! I suppose Splenda’s backstory is the least problematic, but the more I learn about these sweeteners, the more wary I become of using them on a regular basis. I’m going to try to cut back on my Splenda intake just to be on the safe side. What you choose to do with this information is entirely up to you, but I’d advise everyone to talk to their doctor if they have questions or concerns about their artificial sweetener intake.

Well! Perhaps natural sweeteners will offer “a new hope”? Check in next time for my final post: What Are Natural Sweeteners? (Part III of the Sugar Series) to find out!

-CFC

Photo credits (in order): wikipedia.com, wikipedia.com, Bukowsky18, chicfitchef.com

***UPDATE! Check out 60 Minutes Overtime for Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s comments on  artificial sweeteners here! He discusses sugars generally throughout the video but specifically deals with artificial sweeteners around minute 1:08. Also very helpful for any parents out there!***

(DISCLAIMER: Please note that I am not a medical professional or a nutritionist. These posts are simply meant to provide my opinion/advice on artificial sweeteners based on basic internet research. If you have specific questions about your consumption of artificial sweeteners, please consult your doctor!) 

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About ChicFitChef

My "deserted island" checklist: a BCBG dress, a healthy & diabetic-friendly meal and a few workout DVDs. ;-)
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17 Responses to Are Artificial Sweeteners Healthy? (Part II of the Sugar Series)

  1. great post! my main question actually is: are these sugar substitutes actually worth consuming for weight loss reasons? there have been studies that showed that mice who drank diet coke actually got fatter in the long run, but of course these are mice. And if fructose is the main culprit for weight gain as certain studies suggest, why don’t we just eat glucose (except for the diabetics of course)? To be fair, I only read about this sporadically, but for now I am sticking to sugar.

    • ChicFitChef says:

      Thanks for your comment! I’ve also heard that sodas -even diet ones that use artificial sweeteners- have been linked to weight gain (in mice). In my opinion, any of these sweeteners in excess is not a good idea. I suspect that part of it is because the ingredients in sweeteners like Equal and Splenda actually does contain SOME sugar (dextrose and maltodextrin), so the same rules would apply if you were drinking something with regular sugar in it. As for real sugars like fructose and glucose, I think the main issue is WHERE you’re getting these sugars from. If you’re eating processed foods with fructose in them, you’re probably getting highly concentrated fructose- not the kind you’d get in an apple or a handful of grapes. I hope you’ll check out Part III where I talk about natural sweeteners like agave, stevia, etc! 🙂

    • ChicFitChef says:

      Also, I just checked out your blog and it’s fab!! 🙂

  2. The Doc Is In says:

    (Second post attempt…sorry if it’s a repeat!)
    Great topic! I’ll have to watch the video later. I try to keep up with the literature on this but it seems to change every other week! At this point most of what I’ve read suggests that artificial sweeteners do not stimulate production of appetite suppressing hormones and feelings of satiety as well as natural sugars. I guess that makes sense; the body isn’t built to process all these newfangled chemicals no matter how structurally similar they are to glucose and fructose. I just try to err on the side of natural…good old fashioned sugar in moderation is fine and luckily I’ve been blessed (or cursed?!) with taste buds of steel and like my tea and coffee black, LOL! Looking forward to the next post, I don’t know much about agave and stevia.

    • ChicFitChef says:

      Hey Doc! Yeah, there’s definitely new information coming out every day about sugars and sweeteners. Sanjay Gupta’s coverage of sugar/sweeteners on 60 Minutes videos is pretty provocative; the experts he talks to not only link sugars to obesity & heart disease, but also to cancer! Talk about toxic! I’m still working on the natural sweeteners post, but I’m interested to learn more about what these newbies bring to the table. I wonder if we’re all better off just eating regular table sugar (sucrose) in serious moderation instead of trying to trick our bodies into eating something sweetened artificially…All very thought-provoking stuff (especially as a Splenda lover)!

      • The Doc Is In says:

        There’s also a growing trend to use organic honey and maple syrup instead. They’re less processed than refined table sugar but with more concentrated “sweetness” so you tend to used less.

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