Artificial Sweeteners

Eat too many sugary foods and you run the risk of weight gain and a trip to the dentist to take care of cavities. Some people say that we should use a more natural sweetener than table sugar, such as honey, maple syrup, or agave nectar. And what about sugar substitutes – are they safe to use on a regular basis?


Nutritive sweeteners such as table sugar, molasses, and polyols provide energy and contain 2-4 calories per gram of weight. Non-nutritive sweeteners contain no calories, because they are far sweeter than sugar and only tiny amounts are necessary.


Sucrose and fructose make up sugar and other sweeteners that occur naturally in foods. Our body doesn't differentiate between the sugar in an apple, the sugar we stir into our coffee, or the sugar that sweetens muffins and cookies. Molasses, honey, fruit juice concentrate, corn syrup, raw sugar, and brown sugar are examples of sugars routinely added to commercially prepared foods or used at home.


Polyols are sweeteners that aren't well digested and therefore provide about half the calories of sugar. Commonly referred to as ‘sugar alcohols', the preferred name is polyol, because they're neither sugar nor alcohol. Polyols sweeten lower-calorie foods such as ice cream, candy, and baked goods that are often labeled "sugar free", "no sugar added", or "no added sugars". Foods that contain polyols are also allowed to use the health claim "Does not promote tooth decay". Caution: some people experience gas, bloating, or even diarrhea if they consume too many polyols. Just because a food is sugar-free doesn't mean we should eat a lot of it!

One of the most popular polyols is xylitol, which found naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Xylitol has the same bulk and sweetness as sugar, but one-third fewer calories because it is not completely digested. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, chewing sugar-free gum sweetened with xylitol between meals can significantly decrease risk of dental caries.


There are five different sugar substitutes currently approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, and neotame have undergone rigorous testing and are safe for normal use.

1. Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low, Sugar Twin, Sweet Magic) is the oldest sugar substitute, widely used for over 100 years. It's 300-400 times sweeter than sugar. In 1977 saccharin was banned due to research showing it caused cancerous tumors in rats. After thorough scientific review, in 1985 the American Medical Association determined that saccharin is safe for human consumption. Because other sugar substitutes with better taste and little or no aftertaste are now available, saccharin is used less often. Children should not use saccharin due to limited research on its safety in this age group. Pregnant women are cautioned to avoid saccharin because it crosses the placenta.

2. Aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet, SweetMate, NatraTaste), 180 times sweeter than sugar, was approved for general use in 1976. The widespread allegation that the breakdown products of aspartame – methanol and formate – cause lupus, multiple sclerosis, or brain tumors is untrue, with additional research proving the safety of aspartame.

3. Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, SweetOne, Swiss Sweet) was approved for use in 1988. It's most often used in combination with other sweeteners or in soft drinks, and is 200 times sweeter than sugar. One of the byproducts of acesulfame potassium is phenylalanine, a naturally occurring amino acid. Phenylalanine is safe for everyone except for the small percentage of people with phenylketonuria who cannot metabolize it. That's why you see the statement "Phenylketonurics: contains phenylalanine" on any food or beverage that contains acesulfame potassium.