Better or Bitter: The Science Behind Artificial Sweeteners

In America’s ongoing battle against obesity, doctors and dietitians have identified sugar as a major enemy. To replace the scourge of sugar, many have turned to artificial sweeteners, which offer zero calorie counts but with much of the taste still intact. Sugar substitutes can be found in “diet” drinks and other low-calorie items.

While artificial sweeteners seem like a worthy alternative, how safe are they? Do they truly help people manage their calorie intake? Could they lead to even larger medical problems down the road? All of these questions can have massive ramifications on the diet and health of the average American.

Understanding Artificial Sweeteners

By definition, an artificial sweetener (or sugar substitute) is an additive that provides the sweet taste of sugar but has fewer calories. While there are some substitutes that are natural, most are artificial.

Sugar (sucrose) has a lot of calories. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one teaspoon of sugar (4.2 grams) has 16 calories. While that may not seem like much, the real problem is that food contains so much of it. One can of soda contains 132.5 calories from added sugar. A milk chocolate candy bar has 77.5 calories, and one doughnut has 74.2 calories just from sugar.

So in order to keep calorie counts down, food companies add artificial sweeteners to all kinds of processed food, including baked goods, soft drinks, drink mixes, candy, canned foods, dairy and many, many other products. Artificial sweeteners are also commonly used in the home. Whether for baking or cooking, many families use them to prepare food with lower calorie counts.

Survey of Sugar Substitutes

There are several artificial sweeteners that are commonly sold and used. The three that are the most commonly consumed are aspartame, saccharin and sucralose.


Discovered in 1965 by scientists researching anti-ulcer drugs, aspartame remains one of the most widely used sugar substitutes 50 years later. Today the substance is sold under the brand names NutraSweet and Equal, and is 180 times sweeter than sugar.

In 1996, a widely circulated study suggested that aspartame caused brain tumors. The report published in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology found that brain cancer rates jumped 10 percent after NutraSweet was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for widespread use in 1983. The producers of NutraSweet dismissed the concerns, but the FDA investigated.

Ten years later, a National Cancer Institute study found that there was no risk for brain cancer, leukemia or lymphoma among those who consume aspartame at recommended levels. While some studies have shown mixed results, they often include animal testing of large quantities of the substance.


Saccharin was first produced in 1879 by chemists at Johns Hopkins University. The substance was only made popular during the sugar shortages of World War I. In the 1960s and ’70s, dieters began to use pink packets of saccharin called Sweet’N Low as a replacement for sugar. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar.

In 1973, the FDA added a warning label to saccharin packets nationwide in response to a study that found rats given the substance were growing tumors. The warning label was not removed until 2000 after scientists concluded the rodent problems were due to special proteins that human do not produce. The Sweetness Act, signed into law in 2000, repealed the warning label requirement across the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency removed saccharin from its list of hazardous substances in 2010.


Sucralose is among the newest artificial sweeteners and was discovered in 1976. The substance was first approved in Canada in 1991 but wasn’t approved by the FDA until 2006. The substance is commonly referred to as Splenda and is about 600 times sweeter than sugar. The substance is particularly found in diet soft drinks.

A 2008 Duke University study found that Splenda actually contributes to obesity by destroying “good” intestinal bacteria. This, of course, goes against the primary reason that people use the sugar substitute. Sucralose has yet to be tested on humans and has been questioned by scientists from other universities. The Duke study was funded by a sugar industry group, adding further questions to its credibility.

Science and Scandal

Several studies have attempted to discredit sugar substitutes in a variety of ways. As mentioned, artificial sweeteners have often been linked to cancer and other harmful diseases. Some of these studies were due to a lack of information, while others were the result of a sugar industry desperate to keep substitutes off shelves.

Backlash Despite Proven Safety

Much of the recent criticism of the sugar substitute industry is based on evidence that artificial sweeteners actually increase calorie intake and weight. A 2014 study published in Nature found that saccharin, sucralose and aspartame all cause glucose intolerance, which is the very thing fake sugars are supposed to prevent.

This aligns with some studies that have shown people who eat the diet version of foods or drinks are not actually losing weight. Dietitians have long recommended that those in need of a calorie reduction not resort to diet drinks, despite almost all studies proving their safety. It is becoming increasingly clear that sugar substitutes are not exactly the best option for those in search of a sugar alternative.

Health Facts on Sugar Intake

Each sugar substitute has an acceptable daily intake (ADI) level set by the FDA. This level is the maximum amount of the substance that can be consumed on a daily basis without any adverse effects. It’s important to understand that most studies that have revealed some link between artificial sweeteners and cancer involve intakes far exceeding the ADI.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietics, a 150-pound adult can consume 2.4 cans of 12-ounce soda or 8.6 packets of sweetener containing saccharin daily in relative safety. Similarly, someone can safely consume 17 cans of 12-ounce soda or 97.4 packets of artificial sweetener containing aspartame daily without adverse effects. Meanwhile, the ADI for saccharin for a 50-pound child is 0.8 of a 12-ounce can of soda daily and 2.8 packets of sweetener, or 5.6 cans of soda and 32.4 packets of aspartame.

Understanding the Consumption of Sugar Substitutes

Sugar substitutes will continue to be a contentious issue among nutritionists, dietitians and health care providers. At Touro University Worldwide, our online health education programs focus on offering the skills and credentials you need for a career impacting the health and well-being of others. Discover how to start your journey in this exciting and rewarding field with our fully online bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in health sciences with concentrations in health education.

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