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Are artificial sweeteners safe?

As a dietitian, I frequently get asked about artificial sweeteners and which brands I recommend. My response is always the same: Personally, I don't use any and have concerns about artificial sweeteners.

Artificial sweeteners have been touted as the calorie-free sugar alternative; yet, it’s important to review the facts and know what you're replacing sugar with in your homemade baked goods or adding to your morning coffee.

The FDA has approved six artificial sweeteners (the popular branded names are in parenthesis):

  • Saccharin – the pink packet (Sweet ’N Low®, Sugar Twin®, Sweet Twin®)
  • Acesulfame-K (Sunett®, Sweet One®)
  • Aspartame – the blue packet (Equal®, NutraSweet®)
  • Neotame
  • Sucralose – the yellow packet (Splenda®)
  • Advantame

The artificial sweeteners listed above are “generally recognized as safe” in the U.S.; however, there is a legitimate concern for the safety of consumers. The studies of these sweeteners used smaller amounts than what many Americans actually use. Also, we consume additional sugar or sugar substitutes from a variety of other sources you wouldn't necessarily think of such as pasta sauces, salad dressings, crackers, pre-made smoothies and food or beverages labeled as “low calorie” (think diet soda).

These high-intensity sweeteners can stimulate our appetite while chemically tricking our taste buds. Some have been linked with a range of health concerns like cancer, weight gain, headaches, inflammation and many others. They can also increase risk of Type 2 diabetes as well as be addictive.

Unlike the FDA who has earmarked these sweeteners as safe, The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends avoiding sucralose ("the yellow packet"), saccharin ("the pink packet") and aspartame ("the blue packet"). Researchers continue to look at the effects artificial sweeteners have on our bodies.

Ultimately, I view food as medicine. While choosing whole, clean unprocessed foods, I encourage you to savor some natural sweetness, like berries from the farmer's market, as you continue your journey with improved health and wellbeing.

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