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Are artificial sweeteners safe?

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Artificial sweeteners are ubiquitous in our diet. But are they healthy and do they really help you lose weight?

People who count their calories or try to limit their consumption of sugar generally turn to artificial sweeteners . Since they are found in lean yogurt, sugar-free gum and many diet dishes, it’s hard to avoid these sweet-flavored substances.


Are sweeteners harmless? In studies of laboratory animals, some of those sold as substitutes for table sugar (for example, to sweeten coffee or tea) and which are added to processed foods have been associated with cancer. However, according to Health Canada, the US FDA and the World Health Organization, there is no convincing evidence that they pose health risks, including for pregnant women and children.

Even the independent consumer protection agency Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) argues that the potential risks they pose are not as threatening as the obesity epidemic. However, Michael Jacobson, chief executive of the US-based Washington, DC, says he is unconvinced, based on the results of the studies, about their safety. He wants governments to fund safety studiesrather than base their approval on those conducted by the industry. “The risk that a person in particular will suffer from cancer as a result of sweetener consumption is very low,” he says, “but if you multiply this tiny risk by millions of consumers, it becomes significant enough for governments act. In my opinion, they have been lax on this issue. ”

The sweetener / weight loss subsector

Do Artificial Sweeteners Promote Weight Loss? Maybe not. In a study published in August 2008 in Obesity , it was found that normal-weight people who took more than 21 cans of aspartame-containing soft drinks a week were twice as likely to risks of obesitythan those who did not take any sweeteners. Sharon Fowler, co-author of the study and assistant professor of clinical epidemiology at the Health Science Center at the University of Texas in San Antonio, explains, “Sweeteners have been associated with weight gain in rodents. In addition, in two large studies, daily intake of diet sodas was associated with an increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome [group of symptoms related to cardiovascular disease and diabetes]. ”

These findings are of concern to some researchers. Arya Sharma, a physician and chair of the University of Alberta Chair in Obesity Research and Management, advises her patients to avoid artificial sweeteners and consume quantities instead. moderate sugar . (Health Canada advises limiting sugar intake to one-quarter of daily caloric intake, and experts believe it is better to take less.)

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, Medical Director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, says none of these studies have found a causal link between sweetener consumption and obesity. Among the various theories proposed by researchers to explain the existence of such a link, there would be the psychological effect ‘people would replace the calories’ spared’ by foods rich in fat ‘and the biological effect’ sweeteners would deceive the brain, creating a feeling of dissatisfaction and pushing people to ingest more calories. To this, Yori Freedhoff replies: “I would gladly exchange this risk not demonstrated by the real risk that people will gain weight by consuming more calories.”

According to Health Canada, artificial sweeteners can be used to monitor weight when incorporated into a healthy diet . However, replacing healthy foods such as fruits and milk with harmful foods such as candies and sodas increases the risk of developing heart disease and osteoporosis.

Therefore, eat a balanced diet and, if you want to consume an artificial sweetener, make wise choices : in their search for balance between flavor and preservation, manufacturers offer a wide range of food products.

Here is the list of the most common sweeteners, as well as the main arguments in their favor or disapproval, and, ultimately, those considered harmless.


Table sweetener that can replace sugar in coffee or for cooking, and additive used in more than 4000 food products and beverages.

Brand name Splenda
Composition Sucralose is derived from a reaction between sugar (sucrose) and chlorine.
Safety The government authorities and the CSPI believe that the studies on laboratory animals have revealed no risk. Harmless
Verdict .


Table top sweetener and food additive in desserts, chewing gum, soft drinks and cereals.

Brand names Equal and NutraSweet
Composition Synthetic derivative resulting from a mixture of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine.
nnocuité People with phenylketonuria, a rare disease can not metabolize phenylalanine and must therefore be avoided. According to Michael Jacobson, the results of animal studies conducted by the Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences indicate that it increases the risk of leukemia and lymphoma. “The proof could not be more convincing,” he exclaims. However, according to Health Canada, there are serious gaps in these studies.
Verdict Probably harmless for the majority of people.


New additive that should replace aspartame over the next five years. For now, it is found in some chewing gums but it is not widely used yet.

Brand name Neotame
Composition Aspartame, it is composed of aspartic acid and phenylalanine but, unlike him, it does not degrade in phenylalanine and is not toxic to people suffering from phenylketonuria.
Safety According to Health Canada and CSPI, there is no evidence in animal studies that it poses any risk.
Verdict Possible alternative to aspartame.


Table sweetener and additive, often paired with aspartame in diet sodas and chewing gum.

Brand name Sunett
Compositon Synthetic product, also known as acesulfame potassium and acesulfame K.
Safety The CSPI claims that the animal studies conducted in the 1970s on which the government relied to give the go-ahead to this sweetener, had any serious shortcomings Anyway, these studies showed a risk of cancer. Health Canada does not deny that evidence of the safety of Acesulfame is based on outdated data.
Verdict Avoid this sweetener.


Table sweetener sold behind the counter in pharmacies.

Brand names Hermasetas and Sweet’N Low
Composition Chemical name benzoic sulfimide
Safety Following studies in laboratory rats conducted in the 1970s and found to be carcinogenic, saccharin was removed from the list of additives in Canada. Health Canada argues that, according to more recent studies, the results observed in rats are not transposable to humans and considers the possibility of accepting it again as an additive. As for Michael Jacobson, he believes that “there is no obvious evidence on either side”.
Verdict To be avoided until proven innocuous.


Table sweetener to use only on the advice of a doctor.

Brand name Sugar Twin
Composition Cyclamic acid salt.
Safety Prohibited as an additive since results of animal studies have shown that it causes bladder cancer. Health Canada authorizes the sale provided the product is accompanied by a warning notice.
Verdict To avoid.

A natural sweetener?

Many manufacturers would like to sweeten their sodas with stevia, a South American plant that has a much higher sweetening power than sugar and does not provide calories. In 2008, the FDA gave rebaudioside A, a stevia extract, the go-ahead, based on studies by manufacturers and showing that it was generally considered safe. However, Michael Jacobson, of CSPI, says the review of study data commissioned by his group has revealed a risk of genetic mutations. Health Canada is also cautious and does not allow the sale of stevia-sweetened food products. However, you can find the plant in health food stores.

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