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No-Calorie Sweeteners Safe: Are They Effective? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dr. David Lipschitz   
Thursday, 05 July 2012 04:43

An article in The New York Times recently examined the risks of artificial sweeteners. At first blush, it seems we are less likely to gain weight if we sweeten tea or coffee with an artificial, calorie-free sweetener.

And today, far more dietbranded drinks are sold than their sugary counterparts. The price is the same, so why not? First, do people who skimp on calories by using artificial sweeteners lose weight?

Obesity expert Dr. David Ludwig, writing in the Harvard Letter, reported that sugar substitutes contribute to weight gain. Artificial sweeteners are 1,000 times sweeter than table sugar. Consuming sweeteners does not satisfy hunger and desensitizes us to sugar, leading paradoxically to a craving for all things sweet.

So with most of us having little willpower, we obtain sugar from other sources, sneaking in one cookie or chocolate and — while telling ourselves "just this once" — we sneak another and another until we are so guilty that we eat even more.

Now I know that this may not apply to you, but sadly it does apply to many of us (me included!). And to make matters worse, there are sugar receptors on the surface of cells that help regulate how much sugar we take in. More sweetener and less sugar results in a greater number of these receptors that, in turn, cause a more voracious appetite and — whether we like it or not — more food intake.

Remarkably, if we add two teaspoons of sugar to coffee or tea, we are only adding a measly 50 calories. And in the long term, we would be so much better off satisfying our thirst with water and our appetite with nutritious foods that are rich in the right fats and protein, along with an abundant intake of fruits and vegetables and a modest amount of complex carbohydrates, such as cereals, grains and pasta. While it is better to choose a diet soft drink over one containing just sugar, why not consider water or the occasional glass of natural fruit juice? It seems reasonable to choose fewer artificial servings and more real ones when striving to stay healthy.

But can artificial sweeteners do us harm? Today the most readily available artificial sweeteners include aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda), saccharin (Sweet'N Low) and a plant-derived, powerful, nocalorie sweetener called Stevia. In the 1990s, alarm appeared for the first time that these sweeteners might not be entirely safe. Saccharin was shown to cause bladder cancer in rats and mice that were given high doses.

Because of that study, the product is avoided by some. For a time the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considered banning the substance, but eventually, in 2000, all warning signs were removed, as there is no evidence that saccharin causes any form of cancer in humans.

However The New York Times article reports that the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends avoiding aspartame and saccharin but urges no restraint on either sucralose or a new sweetener, Neotame, which the center deems to be safer.

The concern about using aspartame is based on initial evidence that the sweetener is problematic for people with a genetic disorder called phenylketonuria, causing headaches and — at least in one animal study — was associated with an increased cancer risk. However, the center does dispel the unfounded notion that aspartame may increase the risk of multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer's disease.

Based upon an analysis of decades of widespread use, the potential risks of ingesting artificial or naturally occurring noncaloric sweeteners is negligible. Furthermore, even in those who use sweeteners extensively, the chances of even the most minor adverse effect is vanishingly small. But the reason to consider a resolution to discontinue their use should rest more on the compelling evidence that rather than leading to weight loss, these unnatural compounds may well do the exact opposite.

Dr. David Lipschitz is the author of the book "Breaking the Rules of Aging."