Dear Doctor: What are the possible health risks from artificial sweeteners? What are they, and how do we know if they’re safe?
Dear Reader: It’s been well over a century since a scientist at Johns Hopkins University who was fiddling around with the byproducts of coal tar (that’s right, coal tar) accidentally discovered saccharine. It caused a sensation, and a decade later saccharine, which scientists estimate to be between 200 and 700 times sweeter than table sugar, could be found in many sodas and some canned foods.
Since then, as you noted, a host of new artificial sweeteners have hit the market. Some, like cyclamates, which were linked to bladder cancer in lab rats, were subsequently withdrawn. Others, despite undergoing rigorous study before getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration, continue to be the focus of skepticism and scrutiny.
At this time, six artificial sweeteners — also known as “non-nutritive” and “high-intensity” sweeteners — have received FDA approval. These are saccharine, sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, neotame and advantame. Each is at least several hundred times sweeter than sugar. Advantame is said to be 20,000 times sweeter than sugar. It, along with all the other FDA-approved artificial sweeteners except saccharine and aspartame, is heat-stable. That means these can be used in baking.
Stevia, a sweetener made from the leaf extract of a plant native to parts of South America, gets a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) nod from the FDA. That means it doesn’t need formal approval for use. However, the stevia leaf itself, as well as crude stevia extracts, are not cleared for use at this time.