Are Diet Sweeteners Safe?

Every day it seems that there are new diet products on the market. Are the chemicals used in them safe?

Artificial and natural no and low calorie sweeteners which are often added to these products are considered safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Similar agencies have also approved these sweeteners for use in other countries. 

That said, there are still possible side effects, just like medications recognized as safe may result in side effects.

Let’s explore these sweeteners and their potential health risks, starting with the oldest first.

Saccharin (Sweet'N Low)
Saccharin has been sold under the name Sweet’N Low since 1957.
Many of my clients are often scared of this because there was a cancer-risk-scare decades ago. 
However, the studies from the 1970s and 1980s, suggested saccharin was caused caused bladder cancer in rats, not in humans. 

The FDA considers saccharin safe because no studies have found increased cancer rates in humans. 

This may be due to the relatively small amount of saccharin people typically ingest. Even when humans ate 45 packets per day, there seemed to be no cancer risk. 

However, if you are concerned about saccharin’s potential health effect, avoid TaB soda in addition to Sweet'N Low brand products, like Sweet’N Low baking mixes.

Aspartame and Acesulfame Potassium (Equal)
Aspartame and acesulfame potassium (or Ace-K) were approved for use in the 1980s and sold as Equal. (Equal brand now also sells other artificial sweeteners, but the blue packet is still aspartame.)

Although these sweeteners are considered safe for the general population, people with phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot digest aspartame. PKU is a rare condition and is usually found during newborn baby testing. 

 Additionally, a single study indicates that long-term use of aspartame caused blood cancer in rats. Again, there has been no evidence that it causes cancer in humans.

Aspartame is found in such a wide variety of foods and beverages; I cannot list them all.  Their labels are required to carry a warning for people with PKU. 

Sucralose (Splenda)
Sucralose, better known as Splenda, was FDA-approved for consumption in 1998. 

Sucralose may cause cramps or stomach problems, but it is generally considered safe.  

If you think sucralose causes you stomach upset or ramps, check the labels on “light” or diet products, including juices, drink mixes, yogurts and cereals. 

Stevia is known by several other names: Rebiana, rebaudioside A, and Reb A. It is also sold under multiple brand names, such as Truvia, Pure Via, and SweetLeaf. Even Splenda brand has a stevia product.

In the U.S., stevia was approved for use in foods in 2008. The FDA had previously denied use of stevia due to concerns it causes infertility in rats.  Human studies have not replicated this result. 

Stevia is a naturally occurring compound, unlike the previous sweeteners in this post. For this reason, stevia tends to be found in products labelled as “natural” and “organic,” such as Zevia brand beverages.

Although it is natural, it may cause insulin resistance, which I explain later in this post. 

Monk Fruit
Monk fruit is a melon, also known as Siraitia grosvenorii and luo han guo.  

The brand Nectresse sells a monk fruit-based sweetener, which was approved as a sugar substitute by the FDA in 2010. No side effects have been reported yet; however, it may contribute to insulin resistance. 

Monk fruit is not in many products, but it is in Zevia beverages, Lakanto Sugar Free Chocolate and Wink Frozen Desserts.  

If they are considered safe, why do they get a bad rap?
Although the FDA considers them safe, there have been some studies that question the safety of them. 

One common concern is that sweeteners may increase the risk of diabetes by affecting insulin resistance and/or insulin sensitivity. The theory makes sense. If you take in something that tastes sweet, your body releases insulin. Insulin then helps transport sugar or carbohydrates into the cells. But, if you drank a can of diet soda by itself, there is no carbohydrate for it to transport. If this happens repeatedly, this may affect your body's insulin response. 

If I like sweet beverages, should I go for the real sugar or the artificially sweetened drinks?

If you're concerned about the affects of artificial sweeteners, look for naturally sweetened options. Try adding honey or raw sugar, if you make your own drinks. When shopping, always read the ingredient labels. Avoid labels that say sucralose, saccharin, aspartame, and ace-KMore and more diet products are being made with stevia and/or monk fruit instead.

Of course, you can cut out diet drinks altogether.  Water is always a good choice. You can flavor your own water by adding fruit or mint leaves or you can buy unsweetened flavored water. 

What Do Sweetener I Use Personally & Why
I do different things depending on the situation.

If I use a diet sweetener, I use a stevia-sugar blend. I feel comfortable with this because 1) it is a natural sweetener as oppose to an artificial one and 2) it contains real sugar, so insulin will still have sugar to transport. 

However, I also like to go unsweetened. For years, I've made unsweetened scones and I often drink unsweetened tea, for example. 

Sometimes I use natural forms of sugar, like maple syrup. If I want sweet tea, I use honey. I also use the natural sweetness of fruit in desserts, such as my 3 ingredient cookies sweetened with bananas

Regardless of whether you choose an artificial sweetener or a low-calorie natural sweetener, they are all considered safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Question for my readers: What sweeteners do you use? Are there any you avoid in packaged foods? 


The information provided in this blog is not intended to replace individualized medical advice provided by your own doctor, dietitian, or other healthcare professional.
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