You've heard the scary stories. Now it's time to look at the actual science and unclench a little. Here's what you haven't heard.
No, They Don't Cause Brain Cancer
Artificial sweeteners tend to make people skittish. It's understandable because you sure don't have to search too hard to find internet accounts of sweetener-caused brain cancers, epileptic seizures, or paradoxically, obesity.
Here's the thing, though. Those reports are almost certainly false. Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame, and yes, even saccharin, are among the most extensively studied chemicals on the planet and the regulatory agencies of every modern developed country have deemed them safe in reasonable doses.
Furthermore, the maximum amount allowed in foods and beverages is usually 100 times less than the amount determined to possibly be harmful. Put in everyday terms, you'd have to force feed yourself upwards of 20 cans of some artificially sweetened beverages in a day before you had any cause for concern, other than your bladder exploding.
Most artificial sweeteners have virtually no calories, and only one has more than 2% of the calories of an equivalent amount of sugar (aspartame). Neither do they elicit an insulin response like sugar and cause your body to store fat.
And even if they did have some calories or did elicit an insulin response, they're thousands of times sweeter than sugar, so you don't need to use more than a smattering. Many are so powerful, it makes you wonder if you could sweeten the entirety of Lake Michigan with just a few packets.
It comes down to this: Would you rather elicit a tsunami of insulin by eating a shovelful of calorically-dense sugar, or just use a dusting of zero calorie, insulin-neutral artificial sweetener?
The Supposedly Bad
Artificial sweeteners are said to cause cancer and other scary diseases. This assertion has been made so many times that it's taken on the mantle of fact, sort of like the notion that toilets swirl the opposite way in Australia. No, they don't, and neither do approved sweeteners cause cancer.
Most of the research that points to a cancer association was from one research group in Italy that must have been suffering from garlic dementia because they were later widely discredited.
Artificial sweeteners in diet sodas have also, according to epidemiological studies, been shown to cause weight gain over time, but epidemiological studies are piss-poor in proving any number of causalities. Besides, laboratory studies of artificial sweeteners and weight gain showed the opposite. What's probably happening is very simple: many people think that switching to diet soda gives them the freedom to eat or drink other sugary junk. The artificial sweeteners didn't cause the weigh gain, the other junk did.
And sure, just tasting sweetness causes a release of dopamine that might lead to food cravings and weight gain, but artificial sweeteners are no more responsible for that type of endocrine response than real sugar.
Common Sweeteners, From A to Z
It's definitely possible to only eat "naturally" sweetened foods and still be lean, but it's damn hard unless you live a life of monastic denial, avoiding any number of tasty foods. The other drawback is that what you think is natural may not be all that natural, or at least not all that it's trumped up to be.
Here's a short primer on the most popular sugar alternatives – both artificial and natural – currently on the market, in alphabetical order.
Sold as: Sunett, Sweet One
Acesulfame potassium (Ace K) is a calorie-free, heat stable sweetener that's been around for about 15 years. It's about 200 times sweeter than sugar and it's used in candies, baked goods, drinks, frozen desserts, and tabletop sweeteners. Ace K is often blended with other artificial sweeteners because it's the product with the most authentic sugar taste.
Ace K is neither metabolized or absorbed by the body, so it's excreted intact. It's in use in about 90 countries and so far no one has pointed a bony finger at it and screamed "cancer!" However, some worry about it since methylene chloride is used as a solvent in its manufacture, but levels of it are so low in the finished product that they're undetectable.
Acceptable Daily Intake: A 150-pound man could safely consume about 1,000 mg. a day, or the amount contained in about two gallons of Ace K sweetened beverage.
Grade: B- (There haven't been enough long-term studies to justify a higher grade.)
Available as: Nutrasweet, Equal, Sugar Twin
Aspartame is probably the artificial sweetener in widest use. It's also the most demonized. It's been accused of causing brain tumors, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, migraines, memory loss, methanol poisoning, and a host of other diseases and conditions.
However, it's one of the most heavily researched compounds in our food supply, and it's been found to be safe by the regulatory agencies of 90 countries. Consider that over 500 papers on aspartame safety were published between 1988 and 2001. The papers looked at a variety of populations, including children, women, diabetics, fat people, and lactating women. They ruled out headaches, seizures, behavioral problems, mood issues, etc.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) doesn't agree. They like to throw three contrary studies in your face. These three studies linked aspartame with leukemia, lymphoma, and kidney cancers. The studies involved mice, though, and a lot of scientists maintain that the studies were also shoddily conducted.
Even if you choose to give those studies more credence than they might deserve, you have to weigh and contrast them against the findings of the National Cancer Institute. The NCI examined the cancer rates of more than 500,000 people who drank aspartame beverages and they didn't have higher cancer rates than non-aspartame drinking people.
Aspartame is made of two naturally occurring amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, with a methanol group on the end. That means it's a di-peptide. As such, it's not suitable for cooking (as heat breaks down the chemical bonds). The aforementioned methanol group is a subject of a lot of controversy, as methanol in large amounts can be harmful. Just ask any moonshine swilling, genetically fried parents of troglodytic children.
Two things need to be considered here. First, the amount of methanol in aspartame is very low. Second, the body produces methanol naturally, and it's also found in much greater amounts in fruit, fruit juices, vegetables, and some alcoholic beverages. Hell, a cup of tomato juice has 6 times the amount of methanol in it as a can of aspartame-sweetened soda. As such, methanol shouldn't be an issue.
Acceptable Daily Intake: A 150-pound man can safely consume 81 packets of Equal a day, or about nineteen 12-ounce cans of soda. It can be a serious health concern, however, to phenylketonurics, who lack the enzyme necessary to metabolize phenylalanine.
Sold as: Monk Fruit in the Raw, Lakanto Monk Fruit Sweetener, Health Garden Monk Fruit Sweetener, Skinnygirl Monk Fruit Extract Liquid Sweetener
Monk fruit is a gourd that's native to the forests of southern China, and there it shall likely remain because the Chinese won't allow the fruit or its genetic material to be grown elsewhere. The sweet components of monk fruit are antioxidants called mogrosides that are about 300 times sweeter than sugar. Extracting these mogrosides is pretty complicated and time consuming, and when you add that to its China-only status, you get a fairly expensive sweetener.
Aside from its expense, monk fruit seems like the ideal sweetener. The possible problem is that its safety really hasn't been tested. You might of course assume that, given that it's "natural," it's safe, but we don't know for sure. You have to take into consideration that it has to be purified and chemically processed before being sold, which kinda-sorta makes it not so natural.
While it has GRAS status (generally accepted as safe), the acceptable daily intake (ADI) hasn't been established. However, its estimated daily intake limit is set at 6.8 mg/kg of body weight.
Acceptable Daily Intake: Not established
Grade: B+ (Yes, it's natural, but it hasn't been studied enough. It's also expensive.)
Sold as: Sweet and Low, Sweet Twin, Sweet N' Low, Necta Sweet
Saccharin is also one of the oldest ingredients in our modern food supply. It was discovered back in 1879 by researchers at John Hopkins University, and President Theodore Roosevelt, a big fan, helped get it approved for human consumption. It proved especially valuable during the two world wars when there were sugar shortages.
Saccharin, or ortho-sulfobenzoic acid, is a white powder that's 300 to 500 times sweeter than sugar. The body doesn't metabolize it, so it's excreted virtually unchanged. It's heat stable (which makes it okay for use in cooking), doesn't cause tooth decay, and doesn't contain any calories. Back in 1970, however, Congress made manufacturers of saccharin slap a warning label on it because it had caused bladder cancer in rats.
The warning was removed in 2000 by an act of Congress when it was pointed out that the mechanism by which it caused cancer in rats doesn't exist in humans. The only real drawback of saccharin is that it tastes rather metallic.
Acceptable Daily Intake: A 150-pound person could safely consume 28 packets a day.
Grade: C (It's the worst tasting of all the sweeteners.)
Sold as: Truvia, Pure Via, Stevia Extract in the Raw, SweetLeaf, Signature Kitchens Stevia Extract
Stevia is an herb native to Central and South America. The ingredients that give stevia its sweetness are stevioside and rebaudioside, which were isolated back in the 1930s. They're collectively known as glycosides and they're about 300 times sweeter than sugar, heat stable, and calorie-free. While stevia is theoretically a "natural" product, the version you buy from grocery stores is a technically processed food.
Japan has been manufacturing stevia products since the 1970s for use in Diet Coke and other products. In the U.S., it was considered a supplement and only available in health food stores until the U.S. gave it GRAS status in 2008. Stevia's ride, however, hasn't been totally smooth. Europe banned it until 2010, but there are still some suspicions about the product as a few experiments proved it to cause lesions in the liver, brain, and spleen of rats, in addition to leading to itty-bitty rat offspring.
However, the few human studies that were done seemed to vindicate the sweetener and The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group, regards it as safe while still recommending further studies.
Acceptable Daily Intake: A 150-pound person could safely consume 40 packets of Truvia a day.
Grade: B (It doesn't get a higher grade because it hasn't been studied quite enough. It also has a bit of a licorice aftertaste.)
Sold as: Splenda
Sucralose is actually made out of sugar, but they've replaced three of its hydrogen-oxygen groups with three chlorine atoms, which makes it about 600 times sweeter than sugar. And no, that doesn't mean that using sucralose is like accidentally drinking from one of the plastic jugs the pool boy left behind. Chlorine, while toxic in large amounts, is found in many foods, including vegetables and meat.
Sucralose was first created in 1976 and approved for general use in 1999. Scientists conducted over 100 studies with it over the course of 20 years. Today, it's found in close to 5,000 foods and drinks. Since it's heat stable, you can use it for cooking and baking.
There have, however, been some concerns about sucralose. A lone Italian study claimed it caused leukemia in mice, and a review published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health suggested that sucralose can alter the balance of bacteria in the gut, possibly leading to weight gain.
Although these studies might raise an eyebrow, you should remember that they were all done on mice or rats and used VERY large quantities of chemicals. Secondly, the Italian study didn't even use sucralose, but a hydrolyzed chlorocarbon related to sucralose. Even so, to put your mind at ease, consider that sucralose has been approved by the FDA, the European Union's Scientific Committee on Food, the Health Protection Branch of Health and Welfare Canada, and Food Standards Australia New Zealand, among others.
Acceptable Daily Intake: A 150-pound person could safely consume about 165 packets of Splenda a day.