Artificial sweeteners, or non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) are a low calorie alternative to other sweeteners such as sugar, honey or agave. There are currently seven NNS that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These include stevia, aspartame, acesulfame K, neotame, saccharin, sucralose and luo han guo fruit extract. NNS actually come from both natural and artificial sources. You may know them as the “fake” sugar packets you add to foods and beverages. You can also find them in products you may already buy like diet soda or other beverages,sugar free coffee creamers, sugar free candy, xylitolgums, jam and cereal, just to name a few.artificial sweeteners vs sugar

How are NNS different than sugar?

Sugar is digested and then absorbed and used by our bodies for energy. This energy from sugar is in the form of simple carbohydrates and calories. NNS are much sweeter than sugar, see the “when would you use them?” section below. Since they are so intensely sweet you need much less of them to get that sweet taste which results in less calories consumed. Food companies can legally state that their NNS is calorie free if a single serving contains 5 calories or less. NNS were created as a way to still have a sweet taste, without the added calories. People who are diagnosed with diabetes often use NNS instead of sugar to help manage their blood sugar.

Can NNS help you lose weight?

One strategy for weight loss is to eat fewer calories. Replacing sugar with NNS can be one way to decrease how many calories you eat in a day. There has been quite a lot of research over the years on NNS and their effects on weight loss. foot on scaleMany studies suggest that aspartame, when used in a weight loss or maintenance program may increase weight loss and assist a person with weight maintenance over time. Using either saccharin or sucralose with a calorie restricted diet or a person’s regular diet may result in weight loss only if the NNS are substituted for higher calories foods or beverages. In other words, these NNS may only help with if they are used to create a calorie deficit (less calories in and more calories out). Drinking and eating NNS alone, without decreasing your total calorie intake, is not likely to result in weight loss.

Are NNS safe? And how much can I eat?

Yes! Many credible associations and researchers have conducted studies and compiled the evidence to say that NNS are safe to eat. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics wrote a position paper on NNS. They conclude, “consumers can safely enjoy a range of nutritive and non nutritive sweeteners when consumed within an eating plan that is guided by federal nutrition recommendations.” In other words, it is safe to eat both NNS and sugars when paired with a balanced, healthy diet. If you are interested in learning more about what it means to eat a healthy diet, visit USDA’s Choose MyPlate.

myplate-logoThe Expert Committee on Food Additives has set acceptable intake of NNS as a safety precaution. For example, a 150-pound adult could eat up to 37 grams of aspartame in one day before reaching the acceptable limit determined to be safe. 37 grams of aspartame equal about 19 diet sodas or about 107 packets.  Most people never consume amounts that exceed that safety level.

Many people believe that NNS can cause cancer. The idea that NNS cause cancer is based on outdated animal studies. One such study fed rats high doses of aspartame every day until the rats naturally passed away. After the rat’s natural death, researchers found the rats developed cancer related tumors. Although this study may seem worrisome, it is important to remember two things. First, this study was conducted on rats, not humans, so the results cannot be directly carried over to NNS effects on humans. Second, this study gave rats more than the daily acceptable intake set for humans (above). Even if this study could be applied to humans, it would be similar to a person drinking more than 19 diet sodas every day for their entire life. I don’t know about you, but this does not seem very realistic to me. It may be reassuring to know that according to the National Cancer Institute, there is no evidence that any of the approved NNS will cause cancer.

Some people have reported gas, bloating and general stomach distress if NNS are eaten in very large quantities. For most people aspartame, saccharin and sucralose are not associated with these symptoms.  There is no convincing evidence that these NNS are associated with negative health effects. In addition to clinical studies, for more than 15 years the Food and Drug Association has monitored consumer complaints of possible adverse reactions.

Another popular misconception is that Aspartame is bad for you because it has phenylalanine. Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a rare condition where a person’s body cannot break down that protein called phenylalanine. Aspartame contains phenylalanine so people diagnosed with PKU should avoid aspartame.  But, unless you do, phenylalanine is not a problem and occurs in many foods.

When would you use them?

It is interesting to know that NNS are much sweeter than sugar so only small amounts are needed. Some cannot be used in baking because they are not heat stable. Using the wrong sugar substitute in baking will change the volume and texture of the food. Make sure to read the label to see if it can be used as a sugar substitute while baking. Even if a sweetener is approved for baking, replacing sugar with a sweetener will change the final product so I suggest finding recipes made specifically for the NNS you choose to use. Because NNS are sweeter than sugar, you will not need to use as much of them in recipes. See the table below for a comparison.

Artificial Sweetener

Brand Names

Sweetness Compared to Sugar

Aspartame Equal, NutraSweet 180 times sweeter than sugar
Acesulfame-K Sunett, Sweet One 200 times sweeter than sugar
Stevia NuStevia, Sweet leaf, Truvia, Pre Via 200-300 times sweeter than sugar (depends on the brand)
Saccharin Sweet’N Low, Necta Sweet 300 times sweeter than sugar
Sucralose Splenda 600 times sweeter than sugar
Neotame No brand names 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter

Bottom line

NNS are a safe alternative to sugar and can easily be a part of a healthy diet. NNS are not going to cause cancer but like anything else they should be eaten in moderation. Whether you choose to use NNS or not, it is important to eat a well balanced diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.

Check out 6 Tips for Quick & Healthy Meals for more tips on healthy eating!

For more information


Barriocanal LA, Palacios M et al (2008). Apparent lack of pharmacological effect of steviol glycoside used as sweeteners in humans. A pilot study of repeated exposures in some normotensive and hypotensive individuals and in Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics. Regularity Toxicology and Pharmacology. 51:1 (37-41).

Benton D. Can artificial sweeteners help control body weight and prevent obesity?  Nutr Res Rev. 2005 Jun; 18 (1): 63-76. PMID: 19079895

Blackburn GL, Kanders BS, Lavin PT, Keller SD, Whatley J. The effect of aspartame as part of a multidisciplinary weight-control program on short- and long-term control of body weight. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997 Feb; 65(2): 409-418.

Kanders BS, Lavin PT, Kowalchuk MB, Greenberg I, Blackburn GL. An evaluation of the effect of aspartame on weight loss. Appetite. 1988; 11 Suppl 1: 73-84.

Knopp RH, Brandt K, Arky RA. Effects of aspartame in young persons during weight reduction. J Toxicol Environ Health. 1976 Nov; 2(2): 417-428.

Leon AS, Hunninghake DB et al (1989). Safety of long-term large does of aspartame. Archive of internal medicine. 149:10 (2318-2324)

Lim U, Subar AF et al (2006). Consumption of aspartame-containing beverages and incidence of hematopoietic and brain malignancies. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers.  15:9 (1654-1659).

Soffritti M, Belpoggi F, Tibaldi E, Esposti DD, & Lauriola M (2007). Life-span exposure to low doses of aspartame beginning during prenatal life increases cancer effects in rats. Environmental Health Perspectives. 115:9 (1293-1297).

2 thoughts on “Artificial sweeteners put to the test

  1. Sounds like an industry sponsored study, complete propaganda. It’s unnatural and doesn’t belong in the human body save for stevia.

  2. Stevia , which has insulin, is a purest and most natural sweetener. If you check all the others contain sucralose, maldoxtresin, corn syrup, rice syrup, etc, which are another form of sugar. This info is taken from the book Sugar Busters, and Behavior
    Modification calorie counter, and three years of findings by some of the members at a given time.
    Moreover, you must excersise regularly, and modified your menu to maintain a good weight.
    Your parents should start you very young,Under docs supervision, and this will prevent or minimize chances of the inherited genes. (Taken from real cases at the doctors program)


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