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Non-nutritive sweeteners

Every now and then, someone emails me a story that is circulating on the Internet or Facebook. One day, the information was about artificial sweeteners. I happened to have a can of diet soda next to me. After reading the article, I could imagine the can of pop sprouting legs and clawed hands and then running across my desk to attack me. Was the article scary enough for me to avoid diet soda forever? No. I drink one can of diet soda a day, at the most. The Internet contains volumes of information, which is not necessarily backed by health-promoting organizations or scientific research.

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Artificial sweeteners are “non-nutritive sweeteners,” which means they provide few, if any, calories. We can find them in hundreds of food products.

In 2012, after examining numerous scientific studies, the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association released a joint statement with a “cautious recommendation” about the use of non-nutritive sweeteners. These sweeteners are viewed as potential aids in reducing overall dietary calories, which may promote weight management and reduced risk for some chronic diseases.

However, some researchers have shown that people make up for at least some of the calories they avoid in artificially sweetened foods by consuming additional calories from other sources. Compensating for the calories saved is less often the case when beverages are consumed.

The two organizations did not comment on the safety of the ingredients, which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some artificial sweeteners have been used for decades and are backed by many studies, while others are fairly recent entries into the food market.

If you sweeten the cups of coffee you buy at a coffee shop with packets of artificial sweetener, you might know these by the colour of the sweetener packet, such as blue, pink or yellow. Because these ingredients are many times sweeter than sugar, only a small amount is added to foods.

This is a summary of some of the most common non-nutritive sweeteners and is provided for educational, not endorsement, purposes:

  • Aspartame, which is sold as “Equal” or “NutraSweet,” was approved for use in foods in 1981 and is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is made up of two amino acids (protein building blocks): aspartic acid and phenylalanine. When exposed to prolonged heating, the sweetness decreases. Therefore, it is commonly used in cold foods such as carbonated beverages, yogurt, gum, instant pudding and jellies. Food products containing this ingredient must carry a statement that indicates the food contains phenylalanine. People with phenylketonuria, a genetic condition, must avoid phenylalanine.
  • Sccharin, marketed as “Sweet’N Low,” can be used in baked goods, jams, jellies, dairy products and other foods. After a study with lab animals showed increased risk of cancer in high doses, the FDA proposed banning it from food use in the late 1970s. More studies showed the product was safe, so the FDA approved it for use in foods in 2000.
  • Stevia, also known as “Truvia” or “PureVia,” is a plant-derived sweetener. It is used in some beverages, energy bars and other foods. At least 250 times sweeter than sugar, Stevia was approved for use in foods in 2008.
  • Sucralose, which is sold as “Splenda,” is made from sugar but is not digestible. About 600 times sweeter than sugar, it is used in beverages, juice, jams, chewing gum and many other products. It was approved in 1998.

Remember moderation in all things. If you like desserts sweetened with sugar but are watching your calories, have a smaller piece. If you want to cut back on calories from soft drinks but wish to avoid non-nutritive sweeteners, substitute water with a squirt of lemon.

About the author

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Julie Garden-Robinson is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.

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