Safety of Sugar Substitutes

People worry about these giving them cancer. And that's fine. It's good to worry. Worrying gives you cancer. More so than artificial sweeteners anyway. Okay, the five main ones are: saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame-k, and stevia. And between those five, they're ringing in billions of dollars every year- and being as each one wants a heftier chunk of that market, they all kind of fight it out and publish scary things about each other. They're basically a bunch of Lee Atwaters' minus the Bush family and the death-bed epiphany. And then because news is much more exciting when it's scary, and ratings are based on excitement, and salaries are based on ratings, these vaguely scientific cancer warnings are blown out of proportion. Not like exaggerated-blown-out-of-proportion though. Rather, completely-make-believe-blown-out-of-proportion. And the one that has taken the most heat because it's been around the longest, saccharin, is actually probably the best one.

But before we get into side effects, lets look at the sweetness levels, because this is hilarious. Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than regular table sugar. Wow huh? Saccharin is 300 times sweeter. Aspartame and acesulfame-K are 200 times sweeter, and stevia 30 times. This sounds pretty good, and these numbers are published everywhere totally unquestioned. It makes me proud. Think about it though: these numbers are in no way objectively scientific. You can't evaluate taste scientifically. So basically the sweetness numbers come from a group of guys at a table with Splenda and Equal packets throwing out ballpark numbers. "500 times sweeter!" "I think 600." "Fair enough, we'll go with 600." It's all pretty ridiculous, but either way they're all pretty sweet, and so it comes down to side effects to determine which ones are better or worse.

Saccharin: The cancer scare with saccharin doesn't apply to human beings. This should have been really well known all along, so it's funny that everyone, including the FDA, claimed that eating it put you at risk of acquiring cancer. Let's assess this. Saccharin gives lab rats bladder cancer. The problem in associating this with humans, is that rat urine is extremely concentrated, well beyond that of any human, regardless of the level of dehydration. And it is in this level of concentration that causes the saccharin to crystalize and attach to the bladder walls. If it can't crystalize, it cannot stay in your system, and if it cannot stay in your system, it cannot give you cancer. So essentially humans have a 0.0% percent chance of all known side effects. Because this is obvious, the FDA ended up removing all cancer warnings in 2000. But did that help its reputation? No. That news is not exciting. There's no ratings and salaries derived from the safety of saccharin. Additionally, it's one of the only sugar substitutes that's actually heat-resistant- so you can cook with it, or put it in your hot coffee and tea and not require 100 packets to taste it.

Aspartame: L-aspartyl-L-phenylalanine methy ester is hardly a marketable name, hence: we have aspartame, the most common artificial sweetener. And it's not so bad. If you're a phenylketonuric, you're not going to be able to break it down (phenyl alanine part), so don't eat it. And if you're a diabetic, you might have a couple problems too. Other than that, the big side effect is a headache. Millions of people downing aspartame produces dozens of headaches, so I wouldn't be too freaked out. Essentially, if you're not diabetic or phenylketonuric, and not overly susceptible to headaches, you'll be fine.

Acesulfame-K: You don't really seem to digest this stuff and it's questionably mediocre. It was approved by the FDA in 1988, so it's been around for a while now, but still somehow lacks legitimate research. The research that does exist links it to thyroid problems, which would be pretty awful if it were actually the case. But probably not. Perhaps, but probably not. The tests that supposedly showed this link were conducted on weird dogs and rats and stuff, some of which already had a history of thyroid tumors, and no random sampling was used. Basically they took a bunch of dogs with thyroid problems, gave them unusual doses of acesulfame-K, and then assessed their thyroid health. Effectively any thyroid problems could have easily been cheated into the results by the "independent researchers" who were for some reason conducting research like children. This doesn't mean that the risk of thyroid complications does not exist. It just means that the research that says it does is hysterical.

Sucralose: Splenda here was FDA approved in 1998, so it hasn't really been around long enough to have hordes of research. There's been over 30,000 quasi- legit studies on saccharin, and less than 100 on sucralose. This means that there isn't really a solid argument for or against it yet. Chemically, it's just sucrose, i.e. regular sugar, modified so that some hydroxyl groups are dropped and substituted with chlorine. The idea is that it's supposed to make it taste more like actual sugar without letting it actually be absorbed like sugar. But it turns out that some of it actually does get absorbed- about 15% of it does. So that kind of goes against the "side-effect-free" principal they were hoping for of what-your-body-can't-absorb-can't-hurt-you. So far, most of the conceivable side effects deal with pregnancy, birth weight, and growth rate, but nothing conclusive has been shown at all. The most realistic scenario is that moderation yields no side effects beyond a still sugar-substituty taste.

Stevia: This one is my favorite because everyone loves it and it's completely awful. It comes from a holistic-ish South American shrub though, so the hippie population thinks it's amazing. Apparently the fact that it's the only sugar substitute ever that legally has to be purchased as a nutritional supplement is normal to them. What's actually going on is the FDA has okayed every artificial sweetener but this one- and since nutritional supplements dodge FDA regulation, stevia became the only sugar substitute in the history of planet earth to be sold commercially as a nutritional supplement- with no nutritional benefit whatsoever. It doesn't even claim to do anything but be sweet. The reason the FDA approved all the other ones and not stevia? It's the most likely out of all of them to give you cancer. Granted, you still probably won't actually acquire cancer, but it's been shown to mutate your DNA on some level. Other than that, there's indication of interrupting carbohydrate metabolism and both male and female rats have had a slew of reproductive problems, with some implication that humans could possibly experience these side effects as well. I'm not saying you're actually going to get any of the possible side effects, but the fact remains that, out of all of the artificial sweeteners, stevia is the most risky, the least sweet, and generally the most expensive. It basically capitalizes on the words "South American shrub" and the fact that the people those three words appeal to are heavily uneducated.

Sugar alcohol: Usually the package will just say Sugar Alcohol, but sometimes it's sorbitol, or something like that. Notice this is the sixth one and I said there were five. That's because this one is nothing like the rest of them. It doesn't really count as a sugar substitute. It will usually say it does on the label, that's why I feel obligated to include it here, but the labels are just being misleading. You absorb it and then your body turns it into plain sugar, so you get the exact same amount of calories as if you just ate sugar in the first place. Maybe there's a chance you might not absorb all of it, but you probably will. Basically what it is, is sugar with an OH group attached to it. So all your body has to do is remove that OH group, it becomes sugar, and your blood sugar goes up. But that means your body has to do something to chemically modify it, so that'll delay the rise in blood sugar and make the insulin effect slightly smaller. That's a small benefit I guess. The best thing about sugar alcohol though, is that it won't give you gingivitis. No tooth decay varieties. And that's kind of wonderful. That's about it for this one. It won't harm you, but it's not going to offer you any caloric reduction either.

All in all, saccharin's probably the best one, aspartame isn't as scary as people say, and none of the rest of them are actually that bad. Still I wouldn't eat any of them in any amount if you're pregnant. This goes for you too guys.

Question: You say none of them are all that bad, but I've read about several deaths CAUSED by artificial sweetener complications. I think that IS pretty bad.

Answer: Okay. As a future grammatical reference, questions end in question marks. Nonetheless, your comment is almost quasi-warranted. The media is crazily exaggerated on this subject and you obviously overindulge in it all weird-like. And that's fine I guess. Kind of. But try to calm down a little so you don't get cancer. I'll explain the death thing because a handful of people have died from complications related to artificial sweeteners- and I've read about every individual one of them unless someone died just a second ago.

To put it in reference, realize that way, way, way more people have died in plane accidents. Does this cause us to stop flying? Usually not. We just get scared a little because of the terror instilled in us by the media. But you have to understand that something like 200,000 planes take off every single day from U.S airports alone. Have you ever heard breaking news regarding the millions and millions and millions and millions of planes that don't crash every month of your life? No. But a couple times a year when there's a complication, you know about it. That's just how the media works. Fear is entertaining. Thus scary movies exist. Only reason. If fear wasn't entertaining, everyone in the entire world would realize how awful those movies are. And since people will only watch the most entertaining news, fear has proven to be the most effective methodology of capturing that audience.

The information is presented no differently when it comes to artificial sweeteners. Statistically you've got better odds at winning the lottery than experiencing some sort of sweetener fatality, yet no logical person is going to hear that and immediately go rush out to buy a lottery ticket. Likewise, logical people aren't going to become scared of Splenda.

Countless thousands of people die every year from aspirin complications. In California alone in a single year, aspirin served up 3,500 funerals. That makes aspirin like a thousand times more deadly than all artificial sweetener complications and ingested gasoline instances combined. Given that knowledge, are you going to frantically warn everyone you meet of the vast, vast dangerous of aspirin while capitalizing words like CAUSE and IS in order to sound especially stern? Probably not.

So just put it into context and stop worrying your precious little stress-cancered heart. I want to ride a tandem bicycle. I just realized I've never done that. It looks hard though. Either way I'm excited. Okay, I'm gonna go figure out this tandem thing. Bye guys!