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Monday, July 31, 2006

Are Sugar Substitutes Safe?


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved four sugar substitutes: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K and sucralose.

Saccharin (available as Sweet 'n Low) is a noncaloric, indigestible petroleum product that is 300 times sweeter than sugar. In the late 1970s, a study linked saccharin to cancer in laboratory rats, and the product was nearly removed from the market.

But the case against the sweetener was dropped when it was disclosed that the rats had consumed saccharin in the equivalent of 800 cans of diet soda a day.

Aspartame (Equal or NutraSweet), a synthetic combination of two amino acids, contains four calories per gram, just like sugar. But aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar, so much less is needed.

Although the FDA ruled that most people could safely consume the equivalent of 97 packets of aspartame daily, some consumers have complained of headaches and other side effects. Aspartame was originally approved in 1981 for use in powdered drinks and as a tabletop sweetener. In 1996, aspartame was approved for use in all foods and beverages, including products such as syrups, salad dressings and snack foods where prior approval had not been granted.

All foods containing aspartame must carry a label warning that people with phenylketonuria (PKU),an inherited inability to metabolize one of the amino acids (phenylalanine) in aspartame, should not eat the product.

Acesulfame-K (Sweet One) is chemically similar to saccharine and 200 times sweeter than sugar. It's found in dry beverage mixes, instant coffee and tea blends, puddings, gelatin mixes and chewing gum. The sweetener's safety was called into question when laboratory rats developed tumors during testing, but the FDA maintains that the tumors were unrelated to the product.

Sucralose (Splenda) is made from sugar cane that is 600 times sweeter than table sugar. About 15 percent of the sucralose taken by mouth is absorbed in the intestines without being broken down. The remainder passes through the body. In the body, sucralose does not act like a carbohydrate. It provides no calories or energy.

Studies done so far indicate that it is safe, but sucralose has only been in widespread use in the United States for the past five years.

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