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The sweet and lowdown

In the 1970s, products containing the artificial sweetener saccharin had to carry this warning: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” The warning was needed because lab rats given high doses of saccharin were found to have higher incidences of bladder cancer. However, follow-up studies concluded these results were limited to the rats.

Today, no-calorie sweeteners are abundant, with options including aspartame (such as NutraSweet and Equal), acesulfame potassium (like Sweet One), sucralose (Splenda) and the new kid on the block, neotame. Still, rumors about negative health effects persist. Here’s what we know about artificial sweeteners:

  • They have fewer calories. Depending on the sweetener, it may be thousands of times sweeter than sugar, so you only need to use a little bit. Still, that doesn’t mean you should fill up on artificially sweetened desserts and sodas with careless abandon. They don’t offer any nutritional benefit.
  • They don’t cause cancer. Studies haven’t proven any cancer-artificial sweetener link and the National Cancer Institute backs that up. Much of the research that linked artificial sweeteners with cancer used higher doses of sweeteners than would normally be consumed. The studies also were done on animals, and animal studies don’t always produce the same results in humans.
  • They can be an alternative for people with diabetes. Artificial sweeteners won’t raise your blood sugar. However, carbohydrates and proteins in the food may, so exercise caution. You also need to be careful of chemically modified sugars known as sugar alcohols (mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol). These aren’t technically sugar substitutes, but they may be found alongside them in many products. Sugar alcohols are absorbed slowly or incompletely by the digestive system, which lowers their calorie count, but they do have some calories and can increase your blood sugar level. They can also cause bloating and diarrhea.
  • Certain people may need to avoid them. People with a rare genetic condition called PKU (phenylketonuria) should never consume aspartame. PKU stops you from metabolizing an amino acid found in the sweetener, allowing the acid to accumulate in the body, reaching dangerous levels.