No sugar-coating it: Evaluating the safety of artificial sweeteners

Whether you throw a couple of packets of it in your coffee, enjoy the occasional diet soda or opt for a sugar-free treat, you probably consume artificial sweeteners on a frequent basis — the average American consumes 24 lbs. of artificial sweeteners each year! For 24 lbs. a year, it’s at least worth knowing what you’re putting in your digestive tract — and if it’s safe.

That’s why we’ve compiled this breakdown of the five FDA-approved artificial sweeteners — acesulfame-potassium, aspartame, neotame, saccharin and sucralose — plus we’ve taken a look into the latest sugar substitute to gain popularity: stevia.

With our list, you can learn whether the sweetener is artificial or natural, its sweetness compared with sugar, brand names, number of calories, the date it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, types of food and drink you’ll find it in, whether or not it’s suitable for baking, its safety and its acceptable daily intake — the amount of the sweetener that the FDA has stated is safe to consume on a daily basis over a lifetime without hurting your health. ADIs are intended to be about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause concerns.

Acesulfame-potassium (acesulfame-K)

Artificial or natural: Artificial

Sweetness compared with sugar: About 200 times sweeter than sugar

Brand names: Sunett, Sweet One

Calories: None

First FDA approval date: 1988

Types of food/drinks containing it: Carbonated drinks, protein shakes, candies, tabletop sweeteners, chewing gums, dessert and dairy product mixes, baked goods, alcoholic beverages, syrups, sweet sauces and toppings

Suitable for baking? Yes. Acesulfame-K is heat-stable, so it can be used for baking.

Safety: While some critics of acesulfame-K argue that the sweetener hasn’t been thoroughly researched and could cause cancer, there is currently no substantial scientific research to suggest it could lead to harmful health effects. However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, still recommends avoiding it.

ADI: 15 mg/kg body weight per day for children and adults — about 25.6 cans of soda, or 20.4 packets, per day at 150 lbs.

Aspartame

Artificial or natural: Artificial

Sweetness compared with sugar: About 200 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar)

Brands: Equal, NutraSweet

Calories: Caloric value similar to sugar, but since small amounts are used in foods, it’s considered calorie-free

First FDA approval date: 1981

Types of food/drinks containing it: Diet sodas, soft drinks, instant breakfasts, breath mints, cereals, sugar-free chewing gum, cocoa mixes, frozen desserts, gelatin desserts, juices, laxatives, chewable vitamin supplements, milk drinks, pharmaceutical drugs and supplements, shake mixes, tabletop sweeteners, teas, instant coffees, topping mixes, wine coolers and yogurts.

Suitable for baking? Not very suitable for baking because it breaks down when heated and loses much of its sweetness

Safety: People with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria should avoid aspartame since their bodies have difficulty metabolizing phenylalanine, which is found in aspartame. There have been studies suggesting a link between aspartame and cancer in rats, but the reliability and potential impact of such a link in humans has been disputed. The American Cancer Society stated that, “aside from the possible effects in people with phenylketonuria, there are no health problems that have been consistently linked to aspartame use.” However, CSPI still recommends avoiding aspartame.

ADI: 50 mg/kg of body weight — about 17 cans of soda, or 97.4 packets, per day at 150 lbs.

Neotame

Artificial or natural: Artificial

Sweetness compared with sugar: About 7,000 times sweeter than sugar

Brand names: Neotame (made by NutraSweet Co.)

Calories: None

First FDA approval date: 2002

Types of food/drinks containing it: Currently not widely used in food products

Suitable for baking? Yes. Neotame is heat-stable, so it can be used for baking.

Safety: Extensive research has found no adverse health effects associated with neotame. It’s one of the only two artificial sweeteners that CSPI regards as safe.

ADI: 0 to 2 mg/kg of body weight

Saccharin

Artificial or natural: Artificial

Sweetness compared with sugar: About 300 to 500 times sweeter than sugar

Brands: Sweet’N Low, SugarTwin, NectaSweet

Calories: None

First FDA approval date: Started being used in foods around 1907

Types of food/drinks containing it: Drinks, candies, cookies, medicines and toothpaste; often used with aspartame in diet carbonated drinks

Suitable for baking? Saccharin is relatively heat-stable but is rarely used for baking.

Safety: The safety of saccharin was called into question in 1977 after studies suggested that it caused bladder cancer in rats. This was later determined by further studies that the bladder tumors were related to a mechanism in rats not found in humans. The U.S Department of Health and Human Services removed saccharin from its list of cancer-causing chemicals in May 2000. However, CSPI still recommends avoiding the sweetener.

ADI: 5 mg/kg of body weight — about 2.4 cans of soda, or 8.6 packets, per day at 150 lbs.

Sucralose

Artificial or natural: Artificial — Sucralose is the only non-calorie sweetener made from real sugar, but it’s still technically synthetic. The sugar molecule is altered to increase sweetness.

Sweetness compared with sugar: About 600 times sweeter than sugar

Brands: Splenda

Calories: None

First FDA approval date: 1998

Types of food/drinks containing it: Candy, breakfast bars and soft drinks

Suitable for baking? Yes. Sucralose is heat-stable, so it can be used for baking.

Safety: Sucralose has not been linked to cancer, reproductive or neurological risks to humans, and the CSPI considers it safe.

Rebaudioside A-based sweeteners (a primary compound in the stevia plant)

Artificial or natural: Depends on the brand — and the natural/artificial classifications have been debated

Sweetness compared with sugar: One packet of PureVia or Truvia is equivalent to two teaspoons of sugar.

First FDA approval date: Rebaudioside A was approved as a food additive in 2008.

Brands: Truvia, PureVia

Calories: None

First approval date: Not approved, but the FDA recognized reb-A in a “no objection letter” as “generally safe.”

Types of food/drink containing it: Tabletop sweetener, SoBe Lifewater, Vitaminwater, Sprite Green, All Sport Naturally Zero, Blue Sky Free, Crystal Light Pure and some varieties of Odwalla juices

Suitable for baking: Truvia and PureVia are heat-stable, so they are suitable for baking.

Safety: The FDA “does not consider [the use of whole-leaf stevia or stevia extracts] in food to be generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, in light of reports in the literature that raise concerns about the use of these substances. Among these concerns are control of blood sugar and effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular and renal systems.” However, the FDA issued a “no objection letter” to the use of rebaudioside A, stating that it’s “generally safe.”

ADI: 0-12 mg/kg of body weight