Artificial Sweeteners: How Bad Are Saccharin, Aspartame?

Too much sugar will make you fat, but too much artificial sweetener will … do what exactly? Kill you? Make you thinner? Or have absolutely no effect at all? This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Food and Drug Administration‘s decision to ban cyclamate, the first artificial sweetener prohibited in the U.S., and yet scientists still haven’t reached a consensus about how safe (or harmful) artificial sweeteners may be. Shouldn’t we have figured this out by now? (See the top 10 bad beverage ideas.)

The first artificial sweetener, saccharin, was discovered in 1879 when Constantin Fahlberg, a Johns Hopkins University scientist working on coal-tar derivatives, noticed a substance on his hands and arms that tasted sweet. No one knows why Fahlberg decided to lick an unknown substance off his body, but it’s a good thing he did. Despite an early attempt to ban the substance in 1911 – skeptical scientists said it was an “adulterant” that changed the makeup of food – saccharin grew in popularity, and was used to sweeten foods during sugar rationings in World Wars I and II. Though it is about 300 times sweeter than sugar and has zero calories, saccharin leaves an unpleasant metallic aftertaste. So when cyclamate came on the market in 1951,food and beverage companies jumped at the chance to sweeten their products with something that tasted more natural. By 1968, Americans were consuming more than 17 million pounds of the calorie-free substance a year in snack foods, canned fruit and soft drinks like Tab and Diet Pepsi(See nine kid foods to avoid.)

But in the late 1960s, studies began linking cyclamate to cancer. One noted that chicken embryos injected with the chemical developed extreme deformities, leading scientists to wonder if unborn humans could be similarly damaged by their cola-drinking mothers. Another study linked the sweetener to malignant bladder tumors in rats. Because a 1958 congressional amendment required the FDA to ban any food additive shown to cause cancer in humans or animals, on Oct. 18, 1969, the government ordered cyclamate removed from all food products. (See the 10 worst fast-food meals.)

Saccharin became mired in controversy in 1977, when a study indicated that the substance might contribute to cancer in rats. An FDA move to ban the chemical failed, though products containing saccharin were required to carry warning labels. In 2000, the chemical was officially removed from the Federal Government’s list of suspected carcinogens. (Read TIME’s 1974 article on cyclamate and saccharin.)

In 1981, the synthetic compound aspartame was approved for use, and it capitalized on saccharin’s bad publicity by becoming the leading additive in diet colas. In 1995 and 1996, misinformation about aspartame that linked the chemical to everything from multiple sclerosis to Gulf War syndrome was widely disseminated on the Internet. While aspartame does adversely effect some people – including those who are unable to metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine – it has been tested more than 200 times, and each test has confirmed that your Diet Coke is safe to drink. Nor have any health risks been detected in more than 100 clinical tests of sucralose, a chemically altered sugar molecule found in food, drinks, chewing gum and Splenda.

The fear-mongering and misinformation plaguing the faux-sweetener market seems to be rooted in a common misconception. No evidence indicates that sweeteners cause obesity; people with weight problems simply tend to eat more of it. While recent studies have suggested a possible link between artificial sweeteners and obesity, a direct link between additives and weight gain has yet to be found. The general consensus in the scientific community is that saccharin, aspartame and sucralose are harmless when consumed in moderation. And while cyclamate is still banned in the U.S., many other countries still allow it; it can even be found in the Canadian version of Sweet’n Low. Low-calorie additives won’t make you thinner or curb your appetite. But they help unsweetened food taste better without harming you. And that’s sweet enough.

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One Response for Artificial Sweeteners: How Bad Are Saccharin, Aspartame?

  1. yoda


    October 22, 2009 4:34 pm

    I have seen this article from Time over and over again this week–this is just like the third time today! It actually does admit that there are some people who would experience adverse effects, but doe not mention that there is science behind the dangers of aspartame.

    Aspartame can enable weight gain because it increases craving for sweets and fatty foods, may cause a condition known as “fatty liver,” and consists of 10% methanol (in the body), which is a toxin known to poison metabolism (Nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, Dr. James Bowen, Dr. Sandra Cabot). All these conditions make very difficult to lose weight and easy to gain weight. In fact, In 1986, The American Cancer Society documented that they found that persons who used artificial sweeteners gain more fat than people who avoid them.

    You think it is safer for people, including diabetics to use aspartame than sugar? Are you kidding me?!

    In regards to aspartame and diabetes, Dr. H.J. Roberts, a world authority on aspartame and its effects warns diabetics in his medical text book, “Aspartame Disease, An Ignored Epidemic” (would italicize or underline, but I can’t),

    “Excessive insulin may be released by aspartame through a reflex mechanism involving the cephalic phase of insulin release. This is exaggeration of normal physiology relative to anticipating the arrival of food. It could result in hypoglycemic symptoms, or aggravation of diabetes mellitus when the binding of more insulin at cell membranes creates ‘insulin resistance.’

    Dr. Roberts continues, “Severe caloric restriction and other forms of metabolis stress in noninsulin-dependent diabetics increases the release of endorphins and enkephalins. These endogenous peptides with opiate-like activity have been shown to have important glucose-regulating effects in humans–notably, significant increases in plasma insulin and glucose concentrations(Giugliano 1987). Such effects can also lead to clinical hypoglcemia and insulin resistance.”

    Dr. Roberts further writes, “diabetic patients who receive increased doses of insulin for ‘tight control,’ as occurred while using aspartame, are at greater potential risk for adverse cerebral consequences of hypoglycemia. This problem is compounded by reduced release of counterregulatory hormones (epinephrine;growth hormone; glucagon) in response to severe hypogycemia. These altered counterregulatory hormonal thresholds in well controlled TypeII diabetics, even at normal blood glucose concentration(Spyer 2000), can futher compund complications be aspartame-induced hyperinsulinemia.”

    Dr. Roberts adds, “Aspartame may adversely influence control of diabetes, precipitate clinical diabetes, and aggravate or stimulate complications referable to the eyes, kidneys, and periperal nerves.”

    Also, diabetics would find that they will crave more sweets when ingesting artificial sweeteners, which definitely does not help them.

    Stevia is used in South America to treat diabetes because it lowers blood sugar levels and can noiurish the pancreas– 0 glycemic index –it is the only sweetener that is really safe for diabetics.

    I use Sweetleaf stevia–I understand it is the only stevia brand or sweetener on the market with 0 calories, 0 carbs and a 0 glycemic index!( all three properties)