Have you ever tried to find snacks made from sugar in grocery stores nowadays? Nearly impossible. Trekking through my expansive Price Chopper, I flip food items over—cookies, puddings, breads—and instead of finding white sugar, I see techno-babble words like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose. Why do I feel like I could make these in my chemistry class—and why would I want them in my food?!
If you notice the substitute sugar ingredients, you might also notice the lower calorie content. Artificial sweeteners, which are typically several hundred times sweeter than table sugar, require less to achieve that same amount of sweetness.
Sucralose, marketed as Splenda, is one of the most popular low-calorie sweeteners. The FDA describes sucralose as 600 times sweeter than table sugar; because sucralose has less than five calories per serving, the FDA classifies it as “zero calories.”
That would explain why sucralose is exploding everywhere in food. Melanie Warner, author of the New York Times article “A Something among the Sweet Nothings; Splenda is Leaving Other Sugar Substitutes With that Empty Feeling”, explains how “driven by low carb dieting and the general desire of many Americans to cut calories, sales of sucralose have skyrocketed over the last year.”
And they keep going up. In 2004, when the New York Times published this article, “the number of new products introduced each year using sucralose continues to soar, from 573 new products last year to 1,330 through December 13 of this year.”
It is also the darling of the food companies. Warner notes that “manufacturers love it because it has at least twice the shelf life of aspartame. And unlike aspartame, it does not react to heat and can be easily used in baking and in products like yogurt and cereal that use high temperatures during their manufacturing.”
Ah, so that explains why my Sweet N’ Low chocolate chip cookies ended up in the garbage.
While sucralose is classified as a non-nutritive sweetener, it seems to be the tamest among artificial sweeteners. University of Pennsylvania researcher Frank Genieve, among others, has conclusively found sucralose to be relatively harmless.
Saccharin, on the other hand, is a more complicated story. A fine white powder 300 times sweeter than sugar, saccharin, also known as Sweet N’ Low, was first discovered in 1878. “Saccharin is produced from a combination of the flavor chemical methyl anthranilate and ammonia”, explains Warner. Since its creation, it has carried warning labels against cancer on its packaging.
Scott Hensley’s “Saccharin Sweet Now Comes without Hazardous Baggage” found that “researchers in the early 1970’s found saccharin could cause cancer in rats…So, the Food and Drug Administration took saccharin…off its list of food ingredients deemed to be automatically safe in 1972.”
If only the label stuck. Hensley describes the corporate power brought against the EPA. “A group of companies that market low-calorie foods and beverages petitioned the EPA to reconsider saccharin’s hazardous status in 2003.” Just a few years earlier, “President Clinton signed a law that did away with warning labels for products containing saccharin.”
Part of the reasoning supporting saccharin suggests that rats, due to their physical makeup, have a higher chance of being diagnosed with bladder cancer. Saccharin intake was simply a correlation, not causation.
Yet, Tulika Nair, in “Saccharin Side Effects”, highlights what humans are experiencing. “Though an unsupported claim, it has also been stated that saccharin can cause allergic reactions such as headaches, diarrhea, skin eruptions, etc.”
Yet, after thirty years of controversy, saccharin seems to be in the clear. Nair reports, “studies related to saccharin side effects have been conducted for several years but the results have been either inconclusive or disproved.” Fair. However, I still hold my skepticism close. If it used to carry a cancer label, I do not want it near my food.
The other big artificial sweetener is aspartame; it’s market name: Equal. This substitute is 200 times sweeter than sugar and “is not made from sugar but from two amino acids that are isolated from bacteria”, writes Warner. Find it in beverages like Diet Coke, chewing gum, and frozen desserts.
This, like its counterparts, has more bad publicity than good. “A Liverpool test-tube study found that when mixed with common food color ingredients, aspartame actually becomes toxic to brain cells”, states Leah Zerbe, author of “The 4 Best and 3 Worst Sweeteners to Have in Your Kitchen.”
She continues: “researchers have found that one harmful breakdown product [of aspartame] is formaldehyde.” Whoah. This chemical is “commonly used as an industrial fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant” along with being a suspected carcinogen, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Whole Foods, the large natural foods store, refuses to carry any products containing sucralose or aspartame. An ambitious goal. However, I think it could all do us some good if we cut back on artificial sweeteners. We have no scientific evidence about how these sweeteners will affect our bodies after twenty years of consumption. The results may be negligible. They may, however, also be dangerous.
Sweets Photo By Sílvio Gabriel Spannenberg