How safe are artificial sweeteners?

By Britney Glaser - bio | email

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - The average American eats about 20 teaspoons of sugar a day - that's 300 calories just from sugary sodas, processed foods and sweets.  That's the main argument for the use of artificial sweeteners: cut the calories, but at what cost to your health?

A trip down the sugary aisle at the grocery store can be overwhelming...there's the basic sugar with one ingredient: sugar. Then you have dozens of products claiming to give the same taste with no calories, but with a lot more unfamiliar ingredients.

CHRISTUS St. Patrick Hospital clinical nutritionist Samantha Rider says these food additives mimicking the taste of sugar are safe and heavily researched by the Food and Drug Administration.  "If it's FDA approved," she said, "we try to have some kind of assurance in the fact that it's generally considered safe for the consumer."

The concerns over the safety of artificial sweeteners come from people reporting headaches, chronic fatigue - even links to cancer with some chemicals like aspartame, used in nutri-sweet and most diet drinks.  Rider, though, says large studies have not been able to prove detrimental effects, except in people with a rare condition called PKU and in some pregnant women. "Some of those things can cross over into the placenta," said Rider, "so there's definitely some discretion to be used."

Unlike aspartame, which cannot be used in cooked foods, Splenda and Truvia are at the top of the sugar substitute market for baking.  "One of the things that makes splenda so good is that whenever you're baking with it or using it, the conversion rate is one cup to one cup," said Rider.

This conversion keeps baking simple. If you're using stevia products, know that it's 300 times sweeter than sugar and there's some complaints of an aftertaste.  "They may taste good in cold items like yogurts and cereals and those types of things, but can leave an aftertaste in hot items," she said.

The general consensus in the scientific community is these artificial sweeteners are harmless when consumed in moderation. Low-calorie additives won't make you thinner or curb your appetite - but they might keep you from consuming sugar-filled products with empty calories that are converted into fat.

*Something else to remember if you're looking to cut back on sugar: just because something is "sugar-free," like certain cookies or candies, does not mean it's healthy!  Most of the time makers of these products have to up the fat levels to keep the flavor.

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