Artificial Sweeteners

  • Author:
    Betty Kovacs Harbolic, MS, RD

    Betty is a Registered Dietitian who earned her B.S. degree in Food and Nutrition from Marymount College of Fordham University and her M.S. degree in Clinical Nutrition from New York University. She is the Co-Director and Director of nutrition for the New York Obesity Research Center Weight Loss Program.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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Are there any safety concerns with sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are regulated as either GRAS or a food additive. The FDA has filed GRAS affirmation petitions for isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, HSH, and erythritol. Sorbitol is on the GRAS list, while mannitol and xylitol are listed as additives.

The reason that sugar alcohols provide fewer calories than natural sugars is because they are not completed absorbed in our body. For this reason, high intakes of foods containing some sugar alcohols can lead to abdominal gas and diarrhea. Any foods that contain sorbitol or mannitol must include a warning on their label that "excess consumption may have a laxative effect." The American Dietetic Association advises that intakes greater than 50 grams/day of sorbitol or greater than 20 grams/day of mannitol may cause diarrhea.

The presence of sugar alcohols in foods does not mean that you can eat unlimited quantities. Sugar alcohols are lower in calories, gram for gram, than sugar, but they are not calorie free, and if eaten in large enough quantities, the calories can be comparable to sugar-containing foods. You will need to read the food labels for the calorie and carbohydrate content regardless of the claim of being sugar free, low sugar, or low carb.

What are nonnutritive sweeteners?

The use of nonnutritive sweeteners began with the need for cost reduction and continued on with the need for calorie reduction. It is interesting that artificial sweeteners were actually chemicals being developed for another purpose when the researcher tasted it and found that it was sweet. Since the 1950s, nonnutritive sweeteners have become a weight-loss wonder that allowed us to have our sweets without the calories and cavities. Between 1999 and 2004 more than 6,000 new products containing artificial sweeteners were launched. They are found in so many products now that people can be consuming them without even knowing it. The National Household Nutritional Survey estimated that as of 2004, 15% of the population was regularly using artificial sweeteners. These nonnutritive sweeteners are also referred to as intense sweeteners, sugar substitutes, alternative sweeteners, very low-calorie sweeteners, and artificial sweeteners.

The names of the five FDA-approved nonnutritive sweeteners are saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, and neotame. Each of these is regulated as a food additive. These nonnutritive sweeteners are evaluated based on their safety, sensory qualities (for example, clean sweet taste, no bitterness, odorless), and stability in various food environments. They are often combined with other nutritive and/or nonnutritive sweeteners to provide volume that they lack on their own and a desired flavor. An acceptable daily intake (ADI) for each additive has been established. The ADI is the amount of food additive that can be consumed daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk to a person on the basis of all the known facts at the time of the evaluation.

The facts about the safety of these artificial sweeteners are not clear cut. There tends to be a split in the medical community for being for or against their use. Each side has compelling points and that is what you will read under the pros and cons.

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