Type "artificial sweetener" into any Internet search engine and expect to be inundated with a barrage of false claims. These unsubstantiated side effects include (but are certainly not limited to): anxiety, blindness, obesity, suicidal ideation, epilepsy, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue, personality changes, elevated blood pressure, migraines, hypoglycemia, menstrual abnormalities, and "irreversible brain damage." Yikes! Still with us?
Numerous studies have investigated the supposed link between consuming fake sugars and suffering from these symptoms, but few have found any direct links. Yet accusations that sugar substitutes are the root cause of countless health problems pervade. But is there actually a cause for concern? And how can we be sure?
Sweet Poison? The Need-to-Know
Like any flavor enhancer, artificial sweeteners only sneak into snacks, beverages, and other goods after passing a rigorous approval process conducted by the FDA. Based on reviews of its chemicals and all existing research into its effects on animals and humans (i.e. whether its toxic, could possibly cause cancer, or could cause the growth of extra limbs), scientists determine how much of a sweetener humans can safely consume on a daily basis—a measure known as acceptable daily intake, or ADI.
The FDA (or other regulatory agencies) typically draws this line 100 times below the dose at which a substance could actually cause harm. So not only are we dealing with a huge safety margin to begin with, we're talking daily consumption over a lifetime—a fair bit more than the amount we could consume during a one-time synthetic sugar binge.
More: Ask the Experts: Sugar
There are four artificial sweeteners currently on the U.S. Market: aspartame, acesulfame potassium, saccharin and sucralose. A new sweetener, neotame, just received FDA approval and will soon join the ingredient lists of many low-cal and diet products. Ordered from lowest to highest ADI, here are the most commonly used artificial sweeteners on today's U.S. market.
Saccharin (Sweet'N Low, SugarTwin)
Over 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, saccharin is one of the oldest and most widely studied artificial sweeteners. Chemist Constantine Fahlberg first discovered the stuff in 1879 when, after a long day at the lab, everything he touched at dinner suddenly tasted sweeter.