Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?

WebMD gets the low down on artificial sweeteners on the shelves and in the pipeline

By Denise Mann
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

March 23, 2005 -- The way artificial sweeteners were discovered could have been a scene out of the classic comedy The Nutty Professor.

In 1879, Ira Remsen, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., noticed that a derivative of coal tar he accidentally spilled on his hand tasted sweet. While he did not morph into the slim, but obnoxious Buddy Love as the characters played by Eddie Murphy and Jerry Lewis did in their film versions of the comedy, his spill set the stage for the development of saccharin -- an artificial sweetener known today to many seasoned dieters as Sweet-n-Low. This is now the most recognized name brand of the saccharin-based sugar substitutes.

Now more than 125 years later, saccharin is joined by a growing list of artificial sweeteners with varying chemical structures and uses including acesulfame potassium (Sunett); aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal); sacralose (SPLENDA), and D-Tagatose (Sugaree). And there's a whole host of new ones on the horizon.

These products substitute for sugar. For example, they can replace corn syrup, used in many sodas and sweetened drinks, and table sugars. However, the sweet remains in anything and everything from chocolate and ketchup to gum, ice cream, and soft drinks. But are artificial sweeteners safe? Can they help people shed extra weight? What role should they play in person's diet -- if any?