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NutritionAction.com Report Evaluates Artificial Sweeteners

Sweet Nothings: Safe… or Scary? The Inside Scoop on Sugar Substitutes

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Which artificial sweetener is 20,000 times sweeter than sugar and appears to be safe—even though it's derived in part from an unsafe sweetener? What are the healthiest drinks for weight loss? Can artificial sweeteners lead to diabetes? Do diet sodas foster a taste for sweets? Those are the kinds of questions that scientists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest answer in a new report available at the nonprofit group's NutritionAction.com website. The publication, Sweet Nothings, evaluates the safety of all of the sugar substitutes—both natural and artificial—on the market and gives consumers objective, science-based advice about which are safe and which should be avoided.

Most people eat (or worse, drink) too much sugar, say Sweet Nothing's authors, CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson and senior scientist Lisa Y. Lefferts. Sugar provides empty calories and contributes to weight gain, tooth decay, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems. So it's no wonder that food manufacturers are producing more and more foods with artificial sweeteners, they write. Most Americans expect sugar substitutes in diet sodas, but do they expect to find them in cereals, English muffins, salad dressings, and frozen meals?

"Aspartame tops our list of sugar substitutes to avoid, because it caused cancer in three independent studies using laboratory rats and mice," write Jacobson and Lefferts. "Based on those studies, FDA should ban aspartame. We also recommend avoiding saccharin because of evidence from human and animal studies, albeit inconsistent, that it may increase the risk of cancer."

Coke Zero and Diet Pepsi each use aspartame in combination with acesulfame potassium, another sweetener that CSPI recommends that consumers avoid. Diet Mountain Dew uses those two artificial sweeteners in combination with a third, sucralose, which earns the group’s "caution" rating, indicating that it may pose a risk and needs to be better tested. Sucralose, also known by the brand name Splenda, is increasingly used in desserts, popcorns, yogurts, and other diet foods.

Sweet Nothings also examines the science surrounding sugar substitutes and weight loss. Some people claim that artificial sweeteners actually cause people to gain weight. But Jacobson and Lefferts write that many studies that find diet soda drinkers are more likely to be overweight merely reflect the fact that people who are overweight or obese may be consuming diet soda in order to lose weight.

"The fact is, though, that losing weight is difficult, and people need to make a concerted effort to eat fewer calories and exercise more," the authors write.

A recent and widely publicized study concluded that artificial sweeteners may contribute to obesity and diabetes by interfering with the body’s microbiome—the bacteria in the gut. The tests were small and short and focused on high levels of saccharin. Despite the headlines, the evidence still indicates people are more likely to gain weight drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, the authors say.

Sweet Nothings also evaluates the safety of several of the emerging high-potency natural sugar substitutes, such as brazzein, monatin, monk fruit extract, stevia leaf extract (or rebiana), and thaumatin. One line of zero-calorie carbonated soft drinks, Zevia, is sweetened with monk fruit and stevia extracts, as well as the sugar alcohol erythritol. CSPI rates stevia and erythritol as safe. Monk fruit extract may prove to be safe but needs to be better tested.

The publication also previews the looming technology of "sweetness enhancers" and "bitter blockers," which may let manufacturers use less sugar but may be hidden under the term "artificial flavors" on food labels.

The digital edition of Sweet Nothings: Safe… or Scary: The Inside Scoop on Sugar Substitutes is $10 and the print edition is $12 exclusively at NutritionAction.com. The digital and print editions can be purchased together are $14. NutritionAction.com also offers print and digital subscriptions to CSPI’s flagship publication, Nutrition Action Healthletter, which has published the watchdog group's famous exposés of movie theater popcorn, fettuccini Alfredo, and other restaurant meals, as well as the annual Xtreme Eating Awards.

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Contact Info: 

Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).