Since artificial sweeteners hit the market, we’ve all been able to satisfy our sweet tooth without the calories, but, are these fake sugars safe?

Unlike supplements, food additives are regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). After extensive research studies, some expanding over years and including multiple studies, evaluations and re-evaluations, the FDA approves additives only if they have shown no evidence to support negative health problems (in amounts that will typically be consumed by humans).  If, once an additive has been determined safe, new studies are submitted that show reasonable evidence that the substance causes harm, the FDA will issue a mandatory warning label on any product sold that contains that substance while the study is assessed.  Depending on the results,  the product could be pulled from the market and ultimately banned from sales if deemed unsafe. Once approved, the FDA sets a standard, called ADI (acceptable daily intake) for food additives.  This is the amount allowed to be added to foods and that amount is typically 100x less than the smallest amount that could be detrimental to the health of lab animals.  Let me try to put this into perspective using aspartame as an example:

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ADI for aspartame= 50mg aspartame per kilogram (kg) of body weight                                      Your weight=150 lbs (68.2 kg) x 50 mg aspartame = 3,410 mg aspartame daily               (This means that you can safely consume a total of 3, 410 mg aspartame daily)                                                                                                                         One 12 oz can of diet soda that contains aspartame usually consists of 180-195 mg each.  To stay within the safe limit, or ADI, you would be allowed to safely drink 17.5 cans of diet soda a day.

Note: this means that intake of more than the ADI could potentially cause harm to your health, however since the ADIs are set at 100x less than what any average human being is likely to consume, one is very unlikely to eat or drink amounts that will put their health at risk. It is even taken into consideration that some individuals may ingest multiple different foods and beverages that contain the substance in question.

Aspartame in particular has been the subject of health studies for more than 20 years. Studies conducted in lab rats have used greater than 4,000 mg per kg of body weight per day over the entire lifetime of the rats and have shown no links between aspartame and health problems.*

When aspartame is ingested, the body breaks it down into phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol. Methanol is further broken down into formaldehyde. Concerns about aspartame have been about methanol or its metabolite, formaldehyde.  I know what you’re thinking; “formaldehyde?! Thats what they preserve dead bodies with!!!!”  Actually, some amounts of methanol occur naturally in humans, animals and plants including fruits and vegetables.  The metabolism of small amounts of methanol is well-understood in the science world.  Methanol goes from the intestine to the liver. The liver converts methanol to formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is quickly converted to formic acid which is then excreted in the urine or broken down to carbon dioxide and water.   The fact is, our bodies actually produce small amounts of formaldehyde to make DNA.  It is extreme exposures to large amounts of methanol beyond what the body is able to handle that cause health issues.

According to the American Cancer Society, 1 liter of diet soda sweetened with aspartame= 55 mg of methanol and 1 liter of fruit juice= 680 mg of methanol.

Just like the amounts that occur naturally in foods, aspartame does not contain enough methanol to cause a detrimental build-up of metabolites in the blood, causing toxicity.

I know.  Yawn, yawn… Although these details are daunting and most of my readers likely skipped over the last few paragraphs, it’s important to understand the science behind the claims.  It’s easy to form a fast opinion when reading information on the web. That’s because these articles often contain only bits and pieces of scientific information. This creates confusion and biased articles can easily mislead the reader.

So, those are the facts.  Here’s my opinion:

New discoveries in science are made every day. The first concept of the the atom was presented in the early 1800s. It wasn’t until 1897 that it was realized that smaller particles exist (protons, neutrons and electrons).  Approximately 73 years later, quarks were discovered, now understood to be the elementary particles of which matter is composed.  My point can be summed up by repeating the dietitian mantra, ” everything in moderation”.  If it is a man-made chemical, which is precisely what many artificial sweeteners are that requires years of research to evaluate it’s safety for human consumption, do you really need to be eating or drinking large amounts of it?

I drink a soda every now and then and sometimes I drink diet soda.  Sometimes, despite artificial sweeteners, colors, flavorings, etc., I treat myself.  Therefore, I am not suggesting that you eliminate all the fun stuff from your diet.  What I am suggesting, is that you make these foods and beverages just that.. a treat.  If you plucked it from the ground or it grew from a tree and it is in its most natural, God-given state, by all means, indulge!!  But, if the list of ingredients sounds more like a collection of chemists’ formulas, foster your craving only on occasion.

* aspartame contains phenylalanine which is dangerous in persons with PKU (Phenylketonuria, an inborn error of metabolism)

Something you may not know: The FDA has just approved a new high-intensity sweetener called advantame.

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