Artificial Sweetener Wars Heat Up

Various reports show that nearly half the households in the United States use some kind of sugar substitute - a low-or-no-calorie artificial sweetener.

And if you're a fan of any of them, you know you're probably fiercely loyal to the packet of your choice, be it pink, blue or yellow.

Now, add green to the list: There's a new sweetener coming out, and the company making this one depicts it as all-natural.

But does that make it taste better? And is it better for you? Are all artificial sweeteners safe?

Registered dietician and Health magazine contributor Samantha Heller took a look on The Early Show Saturday Edition:

PEOPLE SEEM TO CHOOSE ONE SWEETENER AND STICK WITH IT. THEY'RE ALL EITHER NO-CALORIE, OR VERY LOW CALORIE, SUBSTITUTES. HOW DO THEY WORK?

For the most part, artificial sweeteners are either not metabolized by the body, or metabolized as something else, like a protein. Even the sweeteners with calories are so much stronger than sugar, it takes only a tiny bit to make your food or beverage as sweet as sugar. They all have different characteristics, and so people tend to like one more than the others. Some complain about an after-taste from some of the sweeteners, and there is one school of thought that says using artificial sweeteners doesn't help fight the obesity epidemic in the U.S., and that the sweeteners actually cause people to crave more sweets, but that's unproven.

THE OLDEST, "SWEET'N LOW," COMES IN PINK PACKETS. THERE WAS SOME THOUGHT IT MIGHT CAUSE CANCER. HAS THAT BEEN DEBUNKED?

Sweet'N Low is actually made from saccharin, which was discovered accidentally in 1879 when a researcher spilled a compound he'd been working with on his hands, and noticed it tasted sweet. It's been used to sweeten foods and beverages since the turn of the century. In 1977, the Food and Drug Administration tried to ban saccharine because animal studies showed it caused several types of cancer, including bladder and uterine. But in 2000, it was de-listed, and in 2004, the National Cancer Institute found "some evidence of an increased risk of bladder cancer in heavy saccharine users" (six or more servings a day, or two or more eight ounce diet sodas a day). Saccharin is 300-500 times sweeter than sugar, and it's not metabolized by the body at all, so there are no calories.

THE BLUE PACKETS = EQUAL

Equal is made from Aspartame, which is often used in carbonated soft drinks. In fact, it's found in more than 6,000 products worldwide. There were extensive reviews done in 2002 that concluded aspartame is safe, but there are reports from some people that they get headaches when they use it. There is still a bit of Internet hysteria blaming aspartame for causing everything from cancer to seizures, but those claims have pretty much been proven to be unfounded. There is one caveat, though: People who suffer from PKU, a rare genetic disorder, cannot metabolize one of the main ingredients in aspartame, and so should not use it. It's 160-200 times sweeter than sugar, but aspartame contains some calories. Still, it's so sweet that only a tiny bit is necessary to sweeten your food as much as sugar would. In fact, a tenth-of-a-calorie would give you the same sweetness as 16 calories worth of sugar.

THE YELLOW STUFF, SPLENDA.

Splenda is made from sucralose, making it the only non-caloric sweetener actually made from sugar. It's so much sweeter than sugar, 600 times sweeter, that they mix it with maltodextrin, a starchy powder, so it will measure more like sugar. What's special about Splenda is that it doesn't degrade when exposed to heat, meaning you can actually bake with it, something you can't do with the other sweeteners, because they turn very bitter when exposed to heat. Splenda has passed all safety tests in animal studies as well. It's not metabolized by the body at all, and so it has no calories.

THE NEW SWEETENER, TRUVIA.

Truvia, and Purevia, are made from something called "Stevia," which is derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana shrub, a member of the chrysanthemum family. Its makers say it's all natural, and shouldn't be considered an "artificial" sweetener. It's 200-300 times sweeter than sugar and has no calories. We're just beginning to see it in some carbonated and non-carbonated beverages. There are no human studies done on Stevia yet, but research in animals suggests it could affect the male reproductive system, and could be converted into a compound that could promote cancer. Its main selling point is that it's all-natural, according to its manufacturer.
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