One of the most common questions I get as a dietitian is regarding the use of artificial sweeteners. It’s understandable that there is so much confusion and debate since there are some that are new on store shelves and we are bombarded with conflicting information regarding their safety. At some point you have probably tried most of them in diet drinks, sugar-free baked goods, and “light” products such as yogurt or ice cream.
What are they?
Artificial sweeteners may also be known as sugar substitutes, sugar alternatives, non-nutritive sweeteners, or high-intensity sweeteners. The name high-intensity sweetener is because they are many times sweeter than sucrose or table sugar. They are called “non-nutritive” sweeteners because they provide very low to no caloric value since they are not absorbed by the digestive system. Artificial sweeteners became widely used in food and beverage products as a lower calorie option for persons wanting to lose weight, as well as for persons with diabetes since most of these sweeteners do not affect blood sugar levels.
Do they cause weight gain?
Another common question that I get is whether using artificial sweeteners can lead to weight gain. For as long as artificial sweeteners have been around there are few well-designed studies that have looked at this topic. The studies that are available have shown mixed conclusions.¹ Some studies have found that by using artificial sweeteners someone may compensate by consuming more calories later in the day.¹ For example, if you drink a can of diet soda you may be saving 150 calories, but you may be hungry shortly after or later in the day and consume those calories from another food. This behavior would not lead to weight loss which could be a goal of someone using artificial sweeteners. On the other hand, there are some studies that have found that using artificial sweeteners can lead to a reduction in overall calories and promote weight loss.¹ At this point the jury is still out.
Are they safe?
Artificial sweeteners that are part of our food supply in the U.S. are regulated by the Food and Drug Association (FDA). There are currently 8 different FDA-approved artificial sweeteners that have been assigned an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI). For many commonly used sweeteners, the ADI can range from 9 to 4,920 packets per day.² To keep it simple, the FDA and several other health institutes consider most artificial sweeteners to be safe to include in our diets in moderation.
Here’s a snapshot of commonly used ones:
Discovered: In 1879, by researchers at John Hopkins University³
Brand names: Sweet and Low®, Sweet Twin®, Sweet N’Low®, Necta Sweet®
Sweetness compared to table sugar: 200-700 times sweeter²
Packet color: pink
Discovered: In 1965, by chemist James M. Schlatter⁴
Brand names: Equal®, Nutrasweet®, Sugar Twin®
Calories: 4 kcal per gram
Sweetness compared to table sugar: 200 times sweeter²
Packet color: blue
Discovered: In 1976, by researchers in Britain⁵
Brand name: Splenda®
Sweetness compared to table sugar: 600 times sweeter²
Packet color: yellow
Discovered: Early 1900s, naturally found in the leaves of the plant Stevia rebaudiana²
Brand names: Truvia®, PureVia®, Enliten®
Sweetness compared to table sugar: 200 to 400 times sweeter²
Packet color: green
Artificial sweeteners that have been approved by the FDA are safe to use in moderation. It’s also a matter of preference. Some just don’t like the taste of the artificial sweeteners and that’s okay. We can work with other sweeteners that fit into their lifestyle. Others prefer one type over the another. I may work with someone who uses Splenda® in their coffee every morning but does not like the taste of Equal®. Another thing to keep in mind is that limiting regular sugar in your diet is still important. During a session with a patient, we will discuss what their health and nutrition goals are and why they may or may not choose to use artificial sweeteners. Set up an appointment with an Avance Care dietitian to discuss your goals by calling specialty services at (919) 237-1337.
Doris is a registered dietitian at the Clayton and Knightdale Avance Care locations. In her free time, she enjoys spending time exploring North Carolina with her husband and 3 kids. Doris and her family have a tradition of visiting at least one major league baseball park each year. Camden Yards in Baltimore is their next stop.