Artificial sweeteners: safe or unsafe?

Many of us want to use artificial sweeteners in place of sugar, but are hesitant to do so.  Some of us want to give our children Diet Coke instead of Coke, but the bottle itself says not safe for children, so what do we do?

Fears about potential toxic effects of artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes have been around ever since the first sweetener, saccharin was first produced. Cancer, strokes, seizures, low birthweight, high blood pressure, vomiting and dizziness have all have been cited as risks from consuming sweeteners

But none of these claims have stuck, as you will see in the table below. The table summarizes research outcomes on safety profile of common artificial sweeteners

Sugar substitute  What is it? Safety statement ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) per kg body weight
Sucralose Artificial sweetener derived from sucrose It is used in tabletop sweeteners, fizzy drinks, chewing gum, baking mixes, breakfast cereals and salad dressings

Both NHS and USFDA approve use of sucralose in general population including children

It is heat stable, therefore can be used for cooking

EU’s Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) concluded that sucralose is safe for human consumption. In particular, that it is not harmful to the immune system, does not cause cancer, infertility, pose a risk to pregnancy or affect blood sugar levels
5mg/kg/body weight

23 tabletop packets for a 60 kg person

Stevia Purified extracts from the leaves of the stevia plant, called steviol glycosides Steviol glycosides are approved for use in sugar-free soft drinks, jams, flavoured milk and other dairy products, cakes, desserts and alcohol, among other things

Both NHS and USFDA approve use of sucralose in general population including children

European Food Safety Authority or EFSA’s reviewing panel concluded that steviol glycosides are not carcinogenic, toxic or pose a risk to pregnancy or children.
4 mg/kg body weight

9 tabletop packets/day

(sweetness intensity at 300 x sucrose)
Aspartame Synthetic sweetener Used as a tabletop sweetener, in chewing gum, cold breakfast cereals, and dry bases for  instant coffee and tea, in carbonated beverages such as Diet Coke

Both NHS and USFDA approve use of aspartame in general population including children except for people having phenylketonurea

It is not heat stable, therefore can not be used for cooking

(EFSA) conducted a comprehensive review of the evidence in 2013 and concluded that aspartame was safe for human consumption, including pregnant women and children
US National Cancer Institute conducted a study of nearly half a million people, comparing those who consumed drinks containing aspartame with those who did not. Results of the 2006 study found that aspartame did not increase the risk of leukaemia, lymphoma or brain cancer
However, the panel said the ADI did not apply to people with phenylketonuria (PKU) – a rare genetic disorder t is worth noting that phenylalanine occurs naturally in many protein-rich foods, such as milk, eggs and meat.
50mg/kg body weight

75 tabletop packets/day

Acesulfame potassium or

Acesulfame K

It is often blended with sucralose and aspartame A wide range of low-calorie foods and drinks contain acesulfame K, including table top sweeteners, chewing gum, jam, dairy products, frozen desserts, drinks and baked goods

Both NHS and USFDA approve use of Acesulfame K in general population including children

The EFSA’s predecessor, the Scientific Committee on Food, re-examined the cancer studies in 2000 and concluded there was no “indication of possible carcinogenicity from these studies”
The reviewing panel also concluded that at recommended levels of consumption, acesulfame K was not toxic, nor could it cause gene mutation

mg/kg/body weight

23 table top packets/day

saccharin is the oldest artificial sweetener. Approved for use both by USFDA and NHS, as sweetener in beverages, fruit juice drinks, and bases or mixes,  as a sugar substitute for cooking or table use, and in processed foods

After being suspected of causing bladder cancer in 1970s, many studies have disproved any link of saccharin to cancer. After a complete evaluation of the evidence in 1999, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that saccharin could no longer be considered a possible carcinogen in people

Some health groups maintain that infants, children and pregnant women should avoid it due to the possibility of having an allergic reaction, although there is no evidence to back this up

15 mg/kg/body weight

45 table top packets/day

(sweetness intensity at 400 x sucrose)