Artificial sweeteners have been controversial for decades. Several studies have attacked sweeteners, especially aspartame used in diet sodas.
In June, St. Louis-based Panera Bread Co. announced it will eliminate artificial sweeteners, coloring and preservatives from its foods by 2016. Panera nutrition manager Katie Bengston said “taste is the driving factor.”
Bengston said Panera is evaluating everything, including the sodas it sells.
“We think customers will vote with their stomachs,” she said. “If you’ve ever had food with an artificial sweetener in it, you can usually tell that there is one in the food.”
But Susan Hansen, assistant professor in Saint Louis University’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Sarah Krieger, a registered dietician with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, say go ahead — in moderation.
“It is safe to consume non-nutritive and additional sugars in moderation as long as everything is part of an overall balanced diet,” Krieger said.
“If we’re afraid of something, we focus on it with a vengeance,” Hansen said, citing toxicity studies. “Too much could certainly cause problems. Used in moderation, no.”
The seven sweeteners approved by the Food and Drug Administration have been tested in large quantities to determine what levels are safe.
“The amount that they test are absolutely more than what a typical consumer would consume in one day and over a lifetime,” Krieger said. “But when you consume anything in excess, you’re going to have side effects.”
What Amount Is Safe?
Serving sizes for adults and children vary, Hansen pointed out. “For children, the number is totally different.”
It also depends what foods the artificial sweetener is part of.
“Is it a yogurt? Is it a fruit drink? If it’s just diet soda — and, of course, that is not a stellar nutrition food to start with — so for growing children, I would say if they’re getting yogurt and it has a little bit of added sugar and/or added artificial sweetener, the fact that they’re eating yogurt with calcium and vitamin D kind of trumps the fact that they’re consuming something with added sugar,” Krieger said.
Krieger and Hansen recommended that no more than 10 percent of an adult’s daily calorie consumption be from sugars. With a 2,000-calorie per day diet, that’s 200 calories of sugar.
“A teaspoon of sugar is only 16 calories,” Hansen said. “A can of pop is nine teaspoons of sugar.”
Switching to diet soda does not significantly change a person's sugar intake either, Krieger said. Studies have shown that people who think they're being "good" by drinking diet soda are more likely to pick up something else with just as much sugar.
“Whatever foods that you enjoy, I would encourage in moderation,” Krieger said. She recommends showing people what they can eat, instead of saying “you can’t eat this.”
“Meeting with a dietician, nutritionist is definitely the way to go to get a personalized meal plan so a person, especially with food sensitivities or allergies, can live their life to the fullest and still enjoy eating.”
Hansen has studied how sugar and artificial sweeteners affect the brain.
“Artificial sweeteners typically pass through the body unmetabolized, which means they’re not entering lipophilic tissues, they’re not being deposited in the brain,” she said. “They are, unfortunately, passed on to the fetus.
“Sometimes we’re faced with a health decision that changes our diet going forward. I’ve seen many families change their palates and retrain their children’s expectations of what’s good and healthy in a meal because of a health concern,” Hansen said. “If someone does have obesity or diabetes from metabolic syndrome, this is a perfect opportunity to possibly use artificial sweetener as a crutch, but to really retrain the palate.”