Most people want to know one simple thing about artificial sweeteners - are they safe? The answer unfortunately, is not quite so simple. Some appear to be safer than others. And some appear to be totally safe for most people, yet cause severe reactions in a small minority.
Animal testing is not always helpful. These substances are incredibly sweet, in some cases thousands of times sweeter than sugar. Therefore only tiny amounts are needed per serving. And the human body is very good at handling small amounts of foreign substances.
Testing on animals, unfortunately, often involves feeding unnaturally large quantities over a prolonged period of time. Some trials have been conducted on humans using large amounts of natural sweeteners such as Stevia. In nearly all cases the people involved withdrew from the tests due to the nauseating effect of the intense sweet taste.
These tests are clearly cruel for animals, and this alone may have a detrimental effect on their health. In addition large amounts of any substance can be harmful. In fact there is a known case of a woman dying from drinking too much water as part of a diet plan!
Many respected authorities like Dr Mercola advise against all artificial sweeteners. Yet the reality is that millions use these products and will continue to do so. So a pragmatic approach would be to list them by perceived safety. So here goes.......
Best to worst:
1. Saccharin. (Safe: No side effects reported in 120 years of use)
2. Cyclamate. (Safe: Banned in the USA but no side effects reported in over 70 years of use around the world)
3. Acesulfame K (Appears safe on its own)
4. Neotame. (No side effects reported - much more stable and safer than Aspartame on which it is based.)
5. Alitame. (Like Neotame, but not quite as safe as more is needed due to its lower potency as a sweetener)
6. Sucralose. (Seems safe for most people. However some people seem allergic to it and develop severe reactions.)
7. Aspartame. (Not safe. It is metabolized by the body and broken down into harmful by products including methanol. In addition it is not heat stable, even at low temperatures. During storage at even moderate temperatures it can break down into harmful substances within the date shown on the label. Avoid any amount of this harmful substance!)
Dr Mercola when pressed will admit that Saccharin and Cyclamate are the safest of these substances, and have no known side effects in humans. (He is very much against Aspartame and Sucralose)
So there you have it! If you are going to use artificial sweeteners you can do so in the knowledge that you can at least avoid the worst types......
A full list is available on the Artificial Sweetener List page, and each is rated for taste and safety.
New information has recently come to light regarding the effect artificial sweeteners have on the digestive system. One consistent concern regarding these substances is the effect they have on the metabolism. On the face of it they contain no calories, and all things being equal they should contribute to weight loss. But maybe all things are not equal here, and studies have repeatedly failed to shown weight loss following the replacement of sugar with these products. Well it appears the answer may be provided by a trial conducted in the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel and published Sept 17th 2014.
It appears that these sweeteners, and in particular saccharin, effect the bacteria in the bowel in adverse ways. The result was impaired glucose metabolism. This could be a precursor for type 2 diabetes. Gut flora plays a very important role in the immune system, the regulation of glucose in the bloodstream and general health. It may also affect appetite. Why these artificial sweeteners affect intestinal bacteria is a mystery. It was believed, until recently, that saccharin passed through the body unabsorbed. Possibly the very properties that render these substances sweet cause then to register with the bacteria in the gut, i.e. they perceive them as sweet and react accordingly. Because there is no carbohydrate present this may cause an adverse reaction. If this is so, then even natural zero calorie sweeteners such as Stevia and Monk Fruit may have the same effect. It will be interesting to see the results of further testing.
Artificial sweeteners have an older history than most people think and many were discovered in unusual circumstances.
Saccharin was discovered in 1879. And it was discovered by accident, not invented. Indeed every common artificial sweetener was discovered by accident by scientists developing other products.
In the case of Saccharin two scientists were working in the research dept of John Hopkins University. They were researching toluene derivatives. Toluene is a by product of crude oil and is used for paint thinners and glue. One of the scientists, Constantin Fahlberg, accidentally spilled some of the compound on his hands and noticed the intense sweet taste. Four years later he patented the product and called it Saccharin. He began to produce and sell it. The rest is history. He gave no credit to his partner or the University and became fantastically wealthy.
Dulcin was discovered in 1884 and was widely used in the early 1900s. It was about 250 times as sweet a sugar, and did not have the bitter aftertaste of saccharin. However it was banned in the 1950s after tests on animals seemed to show it to be unsafe.
Cyclamate was discovered in 1937 by Michael Sveda, a scientist working on the development of anti fever medication. Again he spilled some of the substance and noticed the sweet taste. It is not as sweet as Saccharin, but it has less of a bitter aftertaste and for some reason mixes well with it. The mixture of the two sweeteners has a more rounded taste with less of the aftertaste of either. It was banned in the USA in the early 1969 but is still used in most countries around the world and appears to be safe.
Aspartame was discovered by accident in 1965 by a Chemist employed by Searle named James Schlatter. He was working on an anti ulcer drug.when he accidently ingested some of the substance and noticed the sweet taste. Unlike the previously discovered artificial sweeteners Aspartame can be metabolized by the digestive system. It is a protein and it contains 4 calories per gram. However it is 200 times sweeter than sugar and so contains almost zero calories per serving.
Acesulfame K was discovered in 1967 by Karl Clauss. He was a chemist in Hoechst and was working in a lab when he noticed a sweet taste on a piece of paper he had touched. Though most people are not aware of this sweetener, it is one of the most common ones on the market. This is because it mixes particularly well with Aspartame, each sweetener masks the off taste of the other. Most low calorie sodas on the market are sweetened with a mix of Aspartame and Acesulfame K.
The next great breakthrough in this story occurred in 1976 in the UK. A foreign graduate student, Shashikant Phadnis, was working for Tate and Lyle and was investigating the use of sucrose as an intermediate in the production of an insecticide. His supervisor asked him to test a compound, but because of his poor English he misunderstood it as a request for "tasting." He did so and lived to report the sweet taste. The result was Splenda. Chlorine molecules are inserted into the sucrose molecule to alter its properties.
No doubt new artificial sweeteners remain to be discovered. Perhaps the slower pace of discovery in recent years is due to greater hygiene and better practices in the lab!!