The Truth About Artificial Sweeteners – Which Is Best For Your Family
Some Sweet Alternatives for Your Teeth and Overall Health
Did you know that most adults in the U.S. eat 17 teaspoons of sugar each day?1 If that sounds like a ridiculous amount of sugar, it is! Another unsettling fact is that sugar intake is even higher for U.S. teenagers; this age group consumes a whopping 20 teaspoons of sugar per day.1 As you can imagine, these statistics are extremely unsettling for an orthodontist office like ours. But you might be surprised to learn that many other health organizations have cause for concern, too. The American Heart Association recommends the following guidelines for sugar intake:
- Men: nine teaspoons or fewer per day
- Women and children: six teaspoons or fewer per day
- Babies and toddlers: zero teaspoons per day1
Most Americans are eating two to three times more sugar than they should be! And high-sugar diets have been linked to host of health problems, including the following:
- Metabolic syndrome
- Heart disease
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)1
If you’re like me, you may be wondering how dangerous sugar really can be. Well, we looked into that. A study published in the acclaimed journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, found that study participants on a high-sugar diet were 38 percent more likely to die from heart disease.1 Now that’s a wake-up call. What’s more, eating a lot of sugar is a leading contributor to cavities, tooth decay, and gum disease. And more and more research now indicates that oral health is a key indicator of heart health.
So how can we cut back on the sugar surge that’s wreaking havoc on our health? The best option is to follow the guidelines from the American Heart Association and always choose water over sugary beverages like soda and fruit juice. But if you’re not quite ready to say a firm ‘No‘ to that nagging sweet tooth of yours, consider swapping sugar for artificial sweeteners. Making the switch may help to protect your teeth, your heart, and more.
Understanding Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are 180 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar. So you only need to use a little bit to get a whole lot of sweet. They contain zero calories, which means they may help keep your weight in check and prevent diabetes if used in place of sugar or extra calories. An added benefit of these sugar substitutes is that they do not negatively affect the teeth as sugar does.2 Although sugar itself is not corrosive to enamel, when it is metabolized, the bacteria in your mouth release an acid that breaks down the enamel. It is this acid that causes cavities and tooth decay to form over time. Artificial sweeteners do not trigger this acid. In fact, some sweeteners like xylitol (often found in gum), may contain antibacterial properties that improve oral health.2
With all the different brand names out there and an assortment of sweetener packets in every color of the rainbow available at most coffee shops, burger joints, and even fine dining establishments, it can be downright impossible to make heads or tails of what artificial sweetener may be best suited for you. We’re here to help you make sense of it all. Check out the facts, pros, and cons of these five popular sugar replacements:
- Sucralose (Splenda ®): 600 times sweeter than sugar, the sweetener sold in the bright, yellow packets is often used to flavor fruit juices, sodas, and low-sugar ice creams. If you’re a budding Martha Stewart, this one’s for youï¼sucralose is ideal for baking and considered the closest tasting sweetener to real sugar.
- Aspartame (Equal ®, NutraSweet ®, Sugar Twin ®): 180-200 times sweeter than standard sugar, look for this one in the light blue packets. It is often used to flavor gum and drinks like diet soda.
Aspartame has a slightly less chemical taste than its sister sugar sub, saccharin. Steer clear of this sweetener when cooking or baking; heat causes it to break down, making foods taste bitter. If you’re prone to headaches, you may want to opt for a different sugar substitute. Aspartame has been linked to the onset of headaches and migraines in some people.3 Researchers believe that phenylalanine, and ingredient found in aspartame, may be harmful to certain neurotransmitters in the brain.
- Saccharin (Sweet‘N Low ®, Necta Sweet ®, Sweet Twin ®): This artificial sweetener contains a kick 300 times more powerful than sugar. Used to sweeten products like drinks, candies, cookies, and medicine, it it known to some to have a bitter or metallic aftertaste. Others use it religiously to sweeten iced teas and other beverages and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Nearly 30 years ago, animal studies linked saccharin to the development of cancer. Despite this finding, there is little evidence to support that saccharin is harmful to humans.3,6 It continues to be an ever-present component of most restaurant tabletops. Although the cancer scare has greatly diminished, saccharin has been found to be extremely addictive. In one animal study, a group of rats were exposed to intravenous cocaine and saccharin and given the choice between the two. Surprisingly enough, most rats chose the pink sugar sub over the highly-addictive street drug.4 Go figure!
As a precaution, you may want to avoid this sweetener during pregnancy and breastfeeding due to cancer concerns.
- Acesulfame-K (Sweet One ®, Sunnet ®): This tabletop sweetener is 200 times sweeter than sugar; it is often combined with other sweeteners. You can find it in candies and frozen desserts. Acesulfame-K is considered a relatively safe substitute with few side effects. Like Splenda ®, SweetOne ® and Sunnet ® can be used for baking.
- Stevia (truvia ®, STEVIA IN THE RAW ®): Although stevia is not a true artificial sweetener, it is a popular natural sugar substitute that is 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar. It is made from the leaves of a shrub found only in South and Central America. Some pros? It comes in both liquid and powder form, is calorie-free like other artificial sweeteners, and does not affect blood sugar.5 Look for stevia in the green colored packets next time you’re out to lunch. I tried it last week for the first time and was surprised to find that this herb extract perfectly sweetened up my glass of iced tea.
With the exception of stevia, the artificial sweeteners listed above have all been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).5 The FDA has placed limits on the amount of these sweeteners deemed safe for daily consumption, however. Per the administration’s guidelines, a 150-pound adult may eat up to eight and half packets of saccharin, 25 packets of sucralose, or 87 packets of aspartame per day.3 But who on earth would want to do that?
How Artificial Sweeteners Stack Up to Sugar
Sure, regular sugar increases your blood sugar, making you more susceptible to type 2 diabetes and other serious health problems. But you have to keep in mind that sugar substitutes like Splenda ® may not satisfy your body’s desire for the real thing,5 causing you to have a diet soda and two pieces of pie later in the day. In fact, research from the San Antonio Heart Study found that those participants who drank more than 21 diet sodas per week were twice as likely to become overweight or obese compared to those participants who did not drink diet soda.4
Another thing to consider is that sugar substitutes go through a lengthy chemical process. And at this time, science does not have the research to show how these chemicals affect the body over time, especially during childhood and adolescence.4 With this in mind, it’s important to use artificial sweeteners only in moderation. Most health experts advise that folks turn to small amounts of sugar alternatives for short-term use only.5 For example, a doctor might advise his of her patient to opt for sugar subs in their beverages and snacks when transitioning from a high-sugar diet filled with sodas, fruit juices, cookies, and chips.
The verdict? Artificial sweeteners are not a magic bullet. But they can help some people maintain their waistline, a healthier smile, and a top-notch ticker (especially when used in moderation along with a healthy, low-sugar diet).
Dr. Sayed’s recommendation: avoid artificial sweeteners altogether and go with the low calorie sweetener xylitol. It has 40% less calories than sugar, has a very low glycemic index, and starves the bad bacteria in the mouth thereby having a major benefit to your dental health.
- Appelo T, AARP. More proof sugar can kill. https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2017/health-effects-high-sugar-diet-fd.html. Updated October 2017. Accessed July 1, 2018.
- Ray CC. Sweet tooth. The New York Times. September 11, 2012:D2.
- Heisler K, University of New Hampshire. The not-so-sweet facts on artificial sweeteners. https://www.unh.edu/healthyunh/blog/2011/04/not-so-sweet-facts-artificial-sweetners. Updated April 2011. Accessed July 1, 2018.
- Strawbridge H, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. Artificial sweeteners; sugar-free, but at what cost? https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-free-but-at-what-cost-201207165030. Updated July 2012. Accessed July 1, 2018.
- Havard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Artificial sweeteners. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/artificial-sweeteners. Accessed July 1, 2018.
- S. Food and Drug Administration. Additional information about high-intensity sweeteners permitted for use in food in the Unites States. https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm397725.htm#Steviol_glycosides. Updated February 2018. Accessed July 1, 2018.