Sucralose vs. Aspartame: Are Artificial Sweeteners Bad for You?
High sugar intake and the resulting disorders are legitimate health concerns in the United States.
Artificial sweeteners can be a tempting alternative, especially when they're promoted as a way to cut calories and carbs. It seems almost like magic – all the enjoyment, none of the guilt.
But then you hear that artificial sweeteners may be linked to a lot of scary things, like cancer or glucose intolerance. Other studies say the same product is perfectly safe, and competitors claim they're the healthiest option. It can get very confusing very fast.
What is the truth? What's the safest sweetener? Are there healthy sugar substitutes?
What Are High-Intensity Sweeteners?
High-intensity sweeteners are one kind of sugar substitute. As opposed to sugar alcohols, which are less sweet than table sugar (sucrose), high-intensity sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than sucrose. This means less sweetener can be used as a substitute for a given amount of sugar.
Six high-intensity artificial sweeteners are FDA-approved. Below are the three most common sweeteners.
What Is Aspartame?
Aspartame, which appears in NutraSweet and Equal, is made of two amino acids called aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Each amino acid is a naturally occurring substance, but aspartame itself is not.
Aspartame has been an FDA-approved artificial sweetener since 1983.
What Is Sucralose?
Sucralose, popularized under the name Splenda, is made from sucrose that has undergone a chemical process that transforms it into a compound that can't be metabolized by the body.
Sucralose has been an FDA-approved artificial sweetener for general purposes since 1999.
What Is Stevia?
Stevia, popularized under the name Truvia, is made of purified extracts called steviol glycosides derived from the leaves of a shrub native to South America.
Stevia sweeteners have been FDA-approved since 2008. Unlike aspartame and sucralose, stevia is stable at high temperatures (up to 392°F), which means it can be used in cooking and baked goods.
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Are Artificial Sweeteners Healthy for You?
Whether or not something is "healthy" can be a complicated and relative thing. Most food additives are healthy in some ways (to keep food from spoiling, for example) and not healthy in others. Historically, we've learned it can take time to discover how a substance will help or harm your health.
Whether or not something is better or worse for your health on balance depends on your individual circumstances.
Artificial sweeteners are a perfect example. They were originally developed for diabetics. Artificial sweeteners trick your taste buds into perceiving "sweetness" without impacting your blood sugar. That makes them a safe alternative for people whose bodies can't properly metabolize or regulate sugar.
Are artificial sweeteners healthier for diabetics than added sugar? Probably!
However, the same properties that make them healthier for diabetics also make them popular and potentially unhealthy for dieters.
Since artificial sweeteners aren't metabolized like sugar, you get the taste without the nutritional value (carbs and calories). Natural sugar helps you feel satisfied with the food that you've eaten. It activates reward pathways in your brain to release feel-good chemicals. Since artificial sweeteners aren't metabolized like sugar, they taste sweet and prompt your body to expect the rewarding sensation…then they fail to deliver.
As a result, no-sugar/low-sugar diet foods can leave you unsatisfied and craving your reward. You may eat more of the diet food because it isn't satisfying. Sometimes you'll even binge on real sugar later as your body demands the good feeling that the artificial sweetener didn't provide.
Another health impact that aspartame, sucralose, and stevia have in common is that they pass through your digestive system without being broken down. That can lead to bloating, intestinal gas, and diarrhea. Some people are more sensitive to this than others, but your daily intake of artificial sweeteners also makes a difference.
Due to these same properties (being like sugar but not), there are some concerns that artificial sweeteners may have negative impacts on gut microbes, gut hormones, glucose tolerance, and metabolism, among others. The science isn't yet conclusive.
Are FDA-Approved Artificial Sweeteners Safe?
Regardless of whether artificial sweeteners are the best choice for your health, are they safe?
To the best of our knowledge, all three of these FDA-approved artificial sweeteners are safe for most people in the quantities that the average person would consume. If you consume large quantities of sugar substitutes, it may be worth checking the FDA's acceptable daily intake (ADI) level for your preferred sweetener.
Certain artificial sweeteners can pose a safety risk if you have a specific health condition. In that case, some artificial sweeteners can be bad for you.
Is Aspartame Bad For You?
Since aspartame contains the amino acid phenylalanine, it's not safe for people who can't properly process it. This condition is known as phenylketonuria or PKU.
Aspartame is also not the best choice for patients on neuroleptic drugs, like the medications used to treat schizophrenia. Neuroleptic medications can cause tardive dyskinesia (uncontrolled muscle movements). Aspartame can precipitate these symptoms.
Beyond these two cases, general concerns about artificial sweeteners mentioned above do apply.
Additionally, there are studies that suggest possible risks specific to aspartame where the science isn't conclusive (yet). This includes links between aspartame and mood, cancer, MS, lupus, headaches, seizures, fibromyalgia, and oxidative stress that may damage the brain, heart, liver, and kidneys.
We'll need to wait for additional studies before we know if these concerns are valid. Keep in mind that aspartame has been around longer than sucralose and stevia, so there's a lot more research.
Is Sucralose Bad for You?
Although Splenda has been marketed as heat resistant and good for cooking or baking, some research suggests it may break down into toxic chlorinated compounds. The health risks aren't clear.
Otherwise, the general and inconclusive concerns for artificial sweeteners apply.
Is Stevia Bad For You?
As the newest sugar substitute du jour, stevia is relatively untested by independent research. There's a lot we don't know. Be cautious about claims that it's different from other sweeteners – these claims are mostly based on a lack of bad news when it's too soon to tell.
It's likely that general concerns about artificial sweeteners apply.
It's worth noting that while refined stevia compounds are FDA-approved for use as a sweetener, whole stevia leaves and crude extracts are not. Due to a lack of thorough toxicology data, their use is not approved in the U.S.
Another potential concern: stevia is a relative of ragweed. Theoretically, this means that people with ragweed allergies may be sensitive to stevia. However, there are no current data to indicate whether or not this is true.
The Bottom Line
While some areas of food safety are well understood with rules that you can follow, artificial sweeteners lie in a gray area.
The truth is, they're probably a healthier alternative for some individuals, but they're probably not anyone's healthiest option. Nutritionists typically recommend avoiding added sugar or sugar substitutes altogether (or at least cutting back as much as possible).
In other words, the healthiest sugars are the ones that naturally occur in foods like fruit, and the healthiest way to consume them is in their original form.