Artificial sweeteners are FDA-regulated synthetic sugar substitutes and among the most common ingredients in dietary supplements and processed foods. These compounds can be 100-600x sweeter than regular table sugar, but contribute little or no dietary calories. This unique high-sweetness/low-calorie combination makes them ideal for those who want to satisfy their sweet tooth without giving up sugar’s well-noted risks; however, many artificial sweeteners introduce health and nutrition concerns that meet or exceed those of natural sugar sources.
As we cover artificial sweetener side effects, it is beneficial to understand the amounts that are considered safe, especially when compared against sugar consumption. Sugar has prominent drawbacks, including increased risk of tooth decay, weight gain, and the possibility of developing or worsening diabetic state.
In comparison, many of these sweeteners have been implicated as the cause of serious disease in laboratory, animal, and human testing. It is important to understand the risk/benefit profile of each sweetener to be able to make informed decisions about the foods you choose to consume. The list below describes the Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADI)* of several prominent artificial sweeteners. Importantly, it also details the amount of artifically-sweetened foods that would provide a dose equivalent to the ADI.
- Saccharin (ADI = 5 mg/kg): Equivalent to 9-12 powder packets/day
- Aspartame (ADI = 50 mg/kg): Equivalent to 18-19 cans of diet soda/day
- Acesulfame K (ADI = 15 mg/kg): Equivalent to 31-32 cans of diet lemon-lime soda/day
- Sucralose (ADI = 5 mg/kg): Equivalent to 6 cans of diet cola/day
*ADI (and related Dietary Reference Intake, or DRI) are international health standards designed to replace the nearly 50-year-old Recommended Dietary Allowances that are currently found on Nutrition Facts statements. The ADI represents the amount that is 100 times less than the smallest amount that could cause negative health effects in humans if consumed every day over the course of a lifetime.
Top Artificial Sweeteners
Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), measured as 200 times sweeter than sugar, was accidentally discovered in 1965. It was not approved until 1981 due to numerous conflicting studies linking it to cancer. Since then, it has been connected to a variety of neurological symptoms, including headaches, panic attacks, visual hallucinations, manic episodes, mood changes, and dizziness. Additionally, aspartame is known to contain phenylalanine, an essential amino acid found throughout the body. Excessive phenylalanine consumption has been known to cause more serious neurological side effects, including intellectual instabilities, delayed mental and social skills, hyperactivity, seizures, and jerking movements of the arms and legs.
Aspartame-containing products are required to bear the warning labels:
- “Phenylketonurics - Contains Phenylalanine”
- “The amino acid L-phenylalanine should not be used by pregnant women or by those who suffer anxiety attacks or those who have high blood pressure or with pre-existing pigmented melanoma (form of cancer), or people with phenylketonuria (PKU). The amino acid DL-phenylalanine should be used with caution if you are pregnant or diabetic, if you have high blood pressure or suffer anxiety attacks.”
Sucralose (Splenda) was discovered in 1976 and has been measured as 6oo times sweeter than table sugar. Early reports suggested that sucralose consumption may lead to negative side effects on the thymus, an organ essential for proper autoimmune function. Further studies have shown no negative effects on the thymus and did not find any possible carcinogenic, reproductive, or neurological side effects.
There is limited clinical evidence suggesting that sucralose may lead to the development of migraines. Furthermore, according to a small scale study on obese subjects, sucralose was shown to lead to peak plasma glucose levels and increased insulin secretion. More research is warranted to investigate the effects of sucralose on glycemic and insulin response and migraine development before any definitive conclusions can be drawn. According to relevant clinical literature researched for this report, sucralose was linked to the fewest negative health effects of these four artificial sweeteners.
Saccharin (Sugar Twin, Sweet'N Low) is the oldest known artificial sweetener and thought to be 300-500 times as sweet as table sugar. Laboratory rat testing in the 1970’s linked saccharin to the development of bladder cancer, especially in male rats. In response to these studies, the FDA mandated that saccharin-containing foods bear the label: "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals."
Subsequent studies, however, suggested that the mechanism of cancer formation in rats is not similar to the one in humans. Because there was no clear, conclusive evidence of saccharin leading to bladder cancer in humans, saccharin was delisted from the U.S National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens in 2000, and has been removed from other confirmed lists of hazardous compounds pending further investigations.
Saccharin consumption has been conclusively linked to mild and moderate side effects in some humans, including pruritis (itchiness), hives, eczema, photosensitivity, wheezing, nausea and diarrhea.
Acesulfame Potassium (Sunett, Sweet One), often labeled as Acesulfame K or Ace K, was discovered in 1967 and is thought to be 180-200 times sweeter than table sugar. In laboratory research, conflicting studies on rodent species have indicated a potential, but unconfirmed risk of carcinogenicity. However, the FDA and international health bodies have maintained its approval in food and supplement products.
Additional rodent-based studies have raised concerns over this sweetener’s connection to impairment of cognitive function over chronic usage and pre-natal development risks, especially in connection to long-term effects on taste and food consumption in offspring. Scientists and critics alike are advocating for additional clinical trials, especially assessing the long-term risks of Acesulfame Potassium consumption in humans.