We know that too much sugar will rot your teeth and contribute to weight gain, but what will too much artificial sweetener do? Help you lose weight? Cause serious health issues? Do nothing at all? Controversy has surrounded this question for years, and the answer isn’t simple.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes, or food additives, that imitate the taste of sugar. Because these compounds contain many times the sweetness of common table sugar, much less sweetener is required to sweeten foods, and therefore virtually no calories are added to your diet. This makes artificial sweeteners a popular ingredient in a number of processed foods, including soft drinks, powdered drink mixes, baked goods, candy and many other foods and beverages.
After their discovery in the late 19th century, making the switch to faux-sweeteners seemed like a no-brainer. But in the 1960s, a series of studies emerged that linked artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and cyclamate to a variety of health problems, notably cancer. One study seemed to find evidence that linked combined artificial sweeteners (a 10:1 cyclamate:saccharin mixture) to bladder cancer in rats, while another noted that chicken embryos injected with the chemical developed extreme deformities, leading scientists to question whether similar consequences could occur in human embryos whose mothers consumed artificial sweeteners. As a result, in 1968 the Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of cyclamate in the United States and ruled that products containing saccharin must carry a warning label informing customers of potential health hazards.
By 2000, inabilities to reproduce the studies’ results led to the removal of saccharin’s warning label, as well as petitions to lift the ban on cyclamate. While the petition was denied, the FDA has since stated that a review of all available evidence does not implicate cyclamate as a carcinogen, and the chemical was officially removed from the federal government’s list of suspected carcinogens. In addition, despite being banned in the U.S., cyclamate is internationally approved as a sweetener and can be found in food products in more than 55 countries.
In today’s world, the controversy over artificial sweeteners continues. Should artificial sweeteners be a concern? Some argue that they should be because people who use them might replace the lost calories through other foods, offsetting the weight loss benefits that sweeteners are expected to provide in the first place. Another concern is that these chemicals change the way we taste food, overstimulating our sugar receptors and limiting our ability to taste complex and subtle flavors. But despite the numerous critics who blame artificial sweeteners for causing everything from tumors to chronic fatigue, there’s no sound scientific evidence to date that any artificial sweeteners approved for use in the United States directly cause serious health problems. In fact, research studies confirm that, in limited quantities, they’re generally safe.
So in the case of artificial sweeteners, a well-known idiom is all it takes to silence the squabble: a good thing can be great, but too much of a good thing can be bad.