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I am just as guilty as the next guy who has tried to lose weight with the not-that-ridiculous notion that diet soda would reduce my overall calories and somehow increase my health. There is a relatively equal amount of information on the internet saying that aspartame is safe and unsafe, plus the people saying it's safe have more credibility indicators (like doctor or PhD), while the people saying its unsafe are just flimsy nutritionists and hippies at this point, so why not just go with the more convenient option? I knew a guy that was over 400 lbs that switched to diet soda and lost 100 lbs in 6 months, claiming that was the only thing that he changed. That is however, the only example I have ever seen of such a result in my personal life, and I have witnessed hundreds of failed attempts, including myself. There are a lot of sweeteners out there, and many of them are not so famous, but I will do my best to go one by one to figure out once and for all whether hours of internet research can actually figure this problem out. 

First off, the FDA says they're all safe, otherwise it wouldn't be legal for america to shovel them in by the pound. After all, using real sugar to sweeten your toothpaste would be somewhat counterproductive to the purpose of cleaning your teeth. The key word is safe, nobody said they are healthy, other than the blurry interpretations that people make when they're trying to be "right" because they read an article once. You might notice that people get pretty passionate when you attack their limited conventional diet wisdom, so tread lightly if you learn anything from this blog. 

Taste Buds
Sweetness doesn't just come from sugar -- there are hundreds of organic, synthetic, and inorganic compounds that taste sweet. Many plants contain sugar derivatives known as glycosides. Stevia, for example, is a plant high in glycosides that has been used for centuries to sweeten foods and drinks. To be clear though, it was not used in the way we use it today in America.

The degree of sweetness we taste depends on how well the receptors in our tongue interact with the molecules of the sweet food. The stronger the interaction, the sweeter we perceive the taste.

Taste scientists at a company called Senomyx have identified the taste bud receptor that is responsible for finding what we consider "sweet." (Believe it or not, they have a lab full of tiny manufactured taste buds that glow green when in contact with sugars and other sweet substances.) Sugar and artificial sweeteners bind to this receptor, creating the sweet sensation that we get when we eat them. The receptors are found on the surfaces of cells all over the tongue and inside the mouth. They send messages to the brain through the our oral mucosa glands to tell it that we're eating something sweet. 

Artificial sweeteners are compounds that have been found to elicit the same (or a similar) "sweet" flavor we get from sugars. Some are low-calorie because they are so much sweeter than sugar and only a tiny amount is needed. Others are low-calorie (or no calorie) because our bodies can't metabolize them. They simply pass through our digestive system without being absorbed.
Knowing this, does it make sense that all artificial sweeteners would cause cancer or other side effects more than sugar itself? Or is it reasonable to believe that there is a sugar equivalent or even a better alternative out there? Good question, and despite the fact that I started my research on this topic to prove that artificial sweeteners are unhealthy, I have come to realize that it may be just as reasonable to extract the glycosides from a plant as it is to extract the sugar from one. Who decided sugar was healthy anyways?

Controversy
So how did artificial sweeteners get such a bad wrap? It's appears to be all Saccharin and Cyclamate's fault (Sweet and Low and Sucaryl). When public health trends such as an increase in certain types of cancer show up, scientists look to newly-introduced substances. These two sweeteners were the first up to bat, and they were eventually both linked to bladder cancer in laboratory mice and rats. Studies associating saccharin with bladder cancer may have spurred the long-term perception that all artificial sweeteners could cause cancer. Cyclamate still has not been approved for use in the US since it's discovery in 1937, but can be purchased as Sucaryl in the UK. 

Saccharin is in-fact approved by the FDA, and has quite a history to back it up. It turns out that the bladder cancer studies in rats and mice were found to be absolutely true, but the reason it was overturned was that this doesn't correlate to humans. In 2000, the warning labels on foods containing saccharine were removed because scientists learned that rodents, unlike humans, have a unique combination of high pH, high calcium phosphate, and high protein levels in their urine. One or more proteins that are more prevalent in male rats combine with calcium phosphate and saccharin to produce micro-crystals that damage the lining of the bladder. Over time, the rat's bladder responds to this by over-producing cells to repair the damage, which leads to tumor formation and cancer. As this does not occur in humans, there is currently no reason to believe that saccharin causes an elevated bladder cancer risk. I'm sure we've all heard the casual smart guy tell you that it was approved because the saccharin concentrations in the study were 9000% of the rat's body weight and humans don't use that much, but while that is partially true, that wasn't why. 

Regardless, ever since the saccharine approval roller coaster, artificial sweeteners have been scrutinized to the point of absolute exhaustion by the public and scientific community, to the point that the FDA released a statement saying that they are actually more confident in the safety of artificial sweeteners than any other product they have ever tested.

That doesn't mean that it's not still a hard sell to folks like me and you who are avoiding processed foods as a general rule. Let's look at the more popular ones.

Saccharin (additional information): pH 1.66
Saccharin is 300 times sweeter than sugar and not metabolized by the body, so it has no calories. Saccharin is believed to be an important discovery, especially for diabetics, as it goes directly through the human digestive system without being digested. Although saccharin has no food energy, it may trigger the release of insulin in humans and rats, presumably as a result of its taste, but this is not conclusive as the same study states "No statistically significant changes in plasma insulin were found." You may find this to be a common theme among artificial sweeteners, seeing as the triggers for insulin release are currently thought to be related to our taste buds.

Aspartame (formerly known as NutraSweet, now called AminoSweet): pH 4.3
This is by far the most commonly used artificial sweetener. The majority of major brand diet sodas and "diet" foods contain aspartame. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar, and is completely broken down in the body unlike many other sweeteners that go undigested. When it is broken down in the body, the result is two amino acids: Aspartic Acid and Phenylananine, as well as a small amount of Methanol. Phenylananine is a necessary amino acid in your body, found in many fruits, vegetables, meats and milk, and has been identified as safe for all except those who have an extremely rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria, which is a very serious condition that is to be treated regardless of any contact with artificial sweeteners so as to avoid symptoms such as mental retardation and seizures. The approval process did not reveal any concerns about the Aspartic Acid, but Methanol is another story. Methanol, also known as rubbing alcohol or wood alcohol has very well known negative side effects when ingested in large quantities. Methanol ingested in large quantities is metabolized to formic acid or formate salts, which is poisonous to the central nervous system, and may cause blindness, coma, and death. However, the amounts produced when ingesting aspartame are akin to eating a slightly degenerated (ripe) piece of fruit. 

Sucralose (Splenda): pH varies between 1 and 5.5 (chemically modified to match what it is being used for)
This sweetener has made a huge insurgence in the last few years marketing itself as "made from sugar." Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than table sugar and is undigested by the body. It is commonly found in baked goods because it does not break down under heat like aspartame does. While I don't particularly approve of using this product (more information to come) there is a silver lining. Due to its excellent cooking properties, it is most commonly used as a replacement for High Fructose Corn Syrup, the bane of America's health. Don't think you're cutting that genetically modified corn out of your diet just yet though. Splenda mixes sucralose with corn (malodextrin) and corn (dextrose) as bulking agents since sucralose itself doesn't take up much space in your baked goods. While the FDA still approves it as healthy, recent studies are showing that sucralose reduces the healthy bacteria in your intestines by up to 50%, severely reduces your bodies ability to regulate calorie intake (likely related to the bacteria) causing weight gain, increases the pH in the intestines, and affects glycoproteins in your body causing certain crucial medications to be rejected by the body. A "Expert Panel" funded by the makers of Splenda concluded that this study was not rigorous enough, and the FDA did not pursue the matter. 

Stevia: pH varies between 6 and 8 depending on brand and ratio of steviosides. 
Available for centuries in Japan and other countries in the far east, this product is a new addition to America's diet. It was rejected by the FDA in 1990 unless labeled as a dietary supplement due to an anonymous complaint from the food industry causing them to state that there are insufficient studies to deem the product safe, then after rigorous studies, an extract of the stevia leaf called rebaudioside A was finally approved in 2008 as a food additive. Stevia has become a favorite among green dieters and health fanatics because it is the most alkaline of the sweeteners, it comes from a leaf (rather than tar or chemically engineered sugar), and it has centuries of use in countries that have low incidence of cancer and diabetes. It is 300 to 400 times sweeter than sugar, depending on the quality of the product. It was previously thought to be undigested in the body, but recent studies have shown that a small amount of stevioside is absorbed in the body through the intestines during fecal reuptake. The brand of this product does matter because the amount of rebaudiosides in the product has a strong effect on the taste and is not yet standardized. Stevia has a negligible effect on blood glucose, and may even enhance glucose tolerance. Due to this, it is recognized as safe for diabetics. In relation to diabetes, studies have shown Stevia to have a revitalizing effect on β-cells of pancreas, to improve insulin sensitivity in rats, and possibly even to promote additional insulin production, helping to reverse diabetes and metabolic syndrome (starting to sound good huh). South Americans have in fact used stevia leaf for generations in their "ethnomedicine" to treat diabetes. The political controversy (read here) around this product serves as an interesting example of how easily Coca Cola and PepsiCo were able to block the use of stevia leaf for others until they themselves were ready to get their own products approved (Truvia and PureVia are still the only two stevia products available on the market according to my research).

Conclusion
In the end, it is important to note that the FDA does not exist to make sure Americans stay skinny or even happy for that matter, and they do fold to industry pressure in addition to having ALL of the studies performed by the approval applicants themselves. Their stamp of approval simply says that this food is "Generally Recognized As Safe." Ask Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me if you can do terrible things to your body with an excess of table sugar, something that no American has ever insisted should be outlawed. It is important to note that the pH of all of the sweeteners except for Stevia are extremely acidic (keep in mind that the pH scale is logarithmic meaning every point on the scale is 100 times more acidic or alkaline). Most of these sweeteners are not something that necessarily needs to be avoided like the plague, but rather considered to have no place in a perfectly healthy diet. Stevia being the only natural option, its colors appear to shine through as one would expect, and I have been unable to find any credible negative consequences of Stevia. If I were to attempt to rank the sweeteners in order of least to most dangerous, it would be Stevia (white packets) > Aspartame (blue packets) > Saccharin (pink packets) > Splenda (yellow packets). Stevia being the obvious choice when available, but if you're at Starbucks and don't have that option, opt for sugar in the raw or the blue packet if you insist on skipping the calories.

P.S. I wrote this article over the course of two weeks and did a large amount of research. I honestly started out to explain why the artificial sweeteners are unhealthy. The credible evidence all seems to point to the information that I stated above, and the fact is, they simply are not THAT unhealthy. Comments and corrections are welcome. 


 


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