Many people turn to artificial sweeteners especially if you have a sweet tooth. But are they safe? Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitute but may be derived from naturally occurring substances like herbs or from sugar itself. They are used instead of regular sugar to sweeten the food for less calories. Researchers have shown that artificial sweeteners have 100 times more sweetening power than the regular sugar and hence only small amount is needed. Many food and beverage companies market artificial sweeteners or other sugar substitutes as 'sugar-free' or 'low-calorie sweeteners' and they are commonly found in soft-drinks, fruit juices, jellies, baked food products, cakes, and ice-creams.
Let's see some popular sugar substitutes and their characteristics.
1) Saccharine: "Sweet-N-Low' is most recognized brand of saccharine. It is not metabolized in human body and excreted in urine. It also has fairly strong after taste. It can be found in soft drinks, tabletop sweeteners and wide variety of foods.
2) Aspartame: This sweetener is derived from two kind of amino acids - phenylalanine and aspartate. The taste of aspartame is quite pleasant and hence it is added to foods to improve taste. Although aspartame is used in variety of food products, it cannot be used in the food that need to be heated because at high temperature it will denature. It also has limited stability in foods with low pH. Aspartame is sold under brand name 'Nutrasweet' and 'Equal'.
3) Sorbitol: It is produced from sugar but contains only 2.6 kcal per g compared with 4 kcal for sucrose. Sorbitol is also present in variety of food items, however excessive consumption of sorbitol can cause gastrointestinal problems.
4) Acesulfame potassium: It is a noncaloric sweeteners. It contains methylene chloride. Like saccharine, it is also not metabolized in the body and excreted in urine. It is sold under the brand name 'Sunnet'.
5) Sucralose: It is relatively new artificial sweetener synthesized from sucrose. It was discovered in 1976 and approved by FDA in 1998. Small amount of sucralose is absorbed in the body while small amount is excreted in urine. It is sold under brand name 'Splenda'.
6) Stevia: It is a natural sweetener made from herbal plant extract (Stevia Rebaudiana). It is highly stable at low pH and high temperature. It provides long shelf. It is added in food items like chewing gum, ice cream, sofy drinks, and yogurt. It is sold under brand name 'Truvia'.
7) Xylitol: It contains 2.4 kcal per g energy which is slightly less that sucrose. It is commonly found in oral health products and chewing gum.
Some health benefits of artificial sweeteners:
- Weight loss: Artificial sweeteners provide very less calories or no calories which help to reduce the total calorie intake and thus promotes weight loss.
- Diabetes control: For diabetic patients, artificial sweetener is a good option. These sweeteners don't have carbohydrates hence they don't raise the blood sugar level. However it is important to consult the doctor or dietitian for sugar substitute.
Some health risks of artificial sweeteners:
- Cancers: Artificial sweeteners are largely linked with cancers. During research studies it was observed that saccharine is linked with bladder cancer in laboratory rats. Hence saccharine is considered as risky for human health. Aspartame is equally consider harmful for humans. Aspartame is known to cause the brain tumor and neurological disorders. In warm temperature, phenylalanine turns into diketopiperazine which is carcinogenic. However according to cancer institutes and other health agencies, there is no strong evidence that artificial sweeteners cause cancer and hence considered as safe in limited quantities.
- Other health issues: Some people complain of headaches after consuming food sweetened with aspartame. Methylene chloride in Acesulfame is considered to be carcinogenic and causes side effects like nausea, mood problems, impairment of liver and kidneys.
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