MUSC Dietetic Intern
A reported 38 percent of Americans use a sugar-free sweetener on a daily basis, and though some people tend to associate "sugar free" with being a healthy food or beverage item, this isn't always the case.
These days, the choice of sweetener goes far beyond simple table sugar. Sugar-free sweeteners have been around for decades; however, they have been gaining popularity in consumer goods around the country.
What are artificial sweeteners and what makes us choose one over the other?
This group of "sugar free" sweeteners also is known as non-nutritive or non-caloric sweeteners because they are not metabolized by the body for energy. The taste of non-nutritive sweeteners in comparison to sugar is different based on the time of onset and how long the sweetness lasts. Some sweeteners are very similar to table sugar, while others are quite different.
These artificial sugars arose decades ago, specifically for people suffering from diabetes. In today's world, artificial sweeteners are very commonly used, but often the source of much confusion and misconception. Most products on the market now offer a 'sugar-free' version. The downfall with these items is that, while they are lower in sugar, they are often higher in fat and sodium. Just because something is "sugar free" does not mean it is healthy. Our bodies need carbohydrates, protein and even fat to survive. It is really important to consider why you are buying these sugar free items if you really don't need them.
Some well known sweeteners include:
Sweet N' Low, which comes in a pink packet, is known as saccharin. Saccharin happens to be one of the oldest sugar-free sweeteners, first discovered in 1879, and was first used as a sugar replacement in 1907 for diabetics.
Equal, also known as aspartame, can be identified by a little blue packet. Aspartame is approximately 200 times sweeter than regular table sugar and this sweet flavor tends to last longer than other artificial sweeteners. Equal was approved by the FDA in 1974.
Splenda, in the yellow packet, is comprised of sucralose mixed with maltodextrin or dextrose. Splenda became a huge success because of its ability to withstand heat, meaning we can cook and bake with it.
Truvia is a sugar substitute derived from the stevia plant and is considered both a natural and non nutritive sweetener. Truvia is made by steeping the leaves of the stevia plant to extract a naturally sweet substance called Rebiana. What may be deceiving about this all natural sweetener is that it is not grown organically.
Technically, the use of artificial sweeteners has been approved for all individuals, but more importantly it has been proven to be more effective in lifestyle control for diabetics and for individuals who are motivated to lose weight. In 2008, Richard D. Mattes of Purdue University and Barry M. Popkin of the University of North Carolina wrote a critical review of 224 studies on artificial sweeteners in The Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The review found that artificial sweeteners are more beneficial in those who are readily trying to lose or maintain weight. On the contrary, it found that people without these goals who are also regularly consuming artificial sweeteners, particularly in beverages, will overcompensate by eating more unhealthy foods. Psychologically, these artificial sweeteners can take a toll on our body without us even realizing it.
Visit the ADA's Evidence Analysis Library (www.adaevidencelibrary.com) to learn more about the different types of non-nutritive sweeteners and to remain current on studies and clinical trials. Artificial sweeteners are currently deemed safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. For information, visit its website to see the Acceptable Daily Intake for each sweetener or these sites:
http://www.eatright.org; http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/artificial-sweeteners/MY00073; http://www.ajcn.org/content/89/1/1.full.pdf+html and http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/Data/.