The Low-Down on Low-Cal Sweeteners

by Paul Blustein


Today, with all the emphasis on cutting fat from our diets, many of us have forgotten to count total calories. But, there's increasing evidence that being conscious of calories is every bit as important as trimming fat from our diets. A calorie is still a calorie. Whether it comes from fat or sugar, it can still add unwanted pounds.

One way we can reduce calories is to keep an eye on the sugar content of what we eat. Fortunately there are four low-calorie sweeteners currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration: aspartame, acesulfame-K, saccharin, and sucralose.

You may remember some of the controversy about saccharin and aspartame. So, are sweeteners safe? The Food and Drug Administration submits each potential new food additive to stringent testing. The main consideration is how much a person can safely eat every day over a lifetime. Even after an ingredient has been approved, the FDA monitors it closely.

Aspartame tastes very similar to table sugar but is 200 times sweeter. Extensive testing proved that this sweetener is safe. One exception is for those with a rare inherited disorder called phenylketonuria. They aren't able to eat one of the components safely. There are also other questions of its safety that have not been resolved.

Acesulfame-K is also about 200 times sweeter than sucrose (common table sugar). Although it's an ingredient in many foods, in high concentrations it may produce an after taste. Often it's blended with other low-calorie sweeteners to improve both the flavor and sweetness of foods.

Saccharin, the oldest of the low-cal sweeteners, has been used since the turn of the century. It's 300 times sweeter than table sugar, but has a slightly bitter aftertaste. Studies on the safety of saccharin have conflicted, with some studies in animals suggesting that it may be related to a higher risk of bladder cancer. Although the FDA proposed a ban on saccharin in 1977, Congress suspended the ban until more research was done. Then the FDA lifted it in 1991 anyway. While studies have not indicated clearly that it can cause bladder cancer, they do not indicate complete safety, either.

Sucralose was just approved by the FDA in April of 1999. It's the only low-cal sweetener made from actual sugar. It's about 600 times as sweet as sugar, yet has no calories. Only a small part of it is broken down by the body so a lot of it goes into the waste water and has caused concern about the environmental impact.

Other new sweeteners are waiting for their days in the sun. All are already in use in other countries. Alitame, 2,000 times sweeter than table sugar, has not been approved in the US and a petition to allow it has been withdrawn by Danisco. Cyclamate is 30 times sweeter than sugar and in use in more than 50 countries. However, it's been banned in the US since 1970 because animal studies suggested it might lead to bladder cancer in rats.

Low-cal sweeteners can give you the best of "both worlds," if you could call it that, according to some nutritionists. They satisfy the human need for a little sweetness while still letting you stick to a healthy diet, although it has recently been shown that even the taste of sweetness can make some people want to eat more than usual.

We all should still remember that even so, low-cal sweeteners are only part of the weight loss equation. A balanced low-fat diet and regular physical activity are also vital factors.

Yes, sweeteners can give you that additional or extra sweetness, but there are drawbacks to their use. When you drink or eat foods with low cal components, your body winds up retaining water, therefore, you are really not losing weight and you feel like you are spinning yours wheels. If at all possible, drink beverages or use salad dressings that do not have sweeteners and drink sodas if you have to that are not diet or low-cal sodas.

Better yet, make the big plunge, drink water, any kind other than your tap water. You will reap the benefits of long term health. Your publisher drinks either lime Gatorade or water and lots of it. Why not go the distance? Remember, water is the key ingredient of sustaining life!

Updated September 2013


Have any questions? Please don't be bashful, just email me at: questions@am300.org

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