A Buyer's Guide to Sugar Substitutes

The good, the bad and the unacceptable.

According to a recent survey, seven out of 10 adults say they want to reduce or avoid added sugars. To do so, they’re turning to sweeteners that deliver zero or minimal calories. Data from Mintel, a market research group in Chicago, shows that while sales of caloric sweeteners like sugar have been declining in recent years, sales of “diet”-friendly substitutes have skyrocketed, increasing by about 50 percent from 2000 to 2006. And since 66 percent of Americans are overweight and 20.8 million have diabetes, even many health experts are advocating the use of these sugar substitutes.

Bittersweet History

Interest in no-calorie sweeteners isn’t new. Saccharin, the first, premiered in 1879. Its slightly bitter taste and poor performance in the kitchen didn’t bother people with diabetes or dieters: they now could enjoy sweets. Unfortunately, after the safety testing of food additives was federally mandated in 1958, saccharin was shown to cause cancer in animals. In 1977, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed to ban it. But public outcry kept it on the market, albeit with a newly mandated health warning. In 2000, the National Toxicology Program concluded that saccharin did not increase cancer risk in humans and Congress revoked the rule requiring the disclaimer.

“The public should feel confident that any approved sweetener is truly safe and has been closely scrutinized,” says Manfred Kroger, Ph.D., professor emeritus of food science at Penn State. And most food scientists agree.

But the saccharin-cancer connection has left many skeptical of artificial sweeteners. Some public health advocates say that the FDA’s food-additive approval process—in which an ingredient’s manufacturer is responsible for demonstrating its safety—is biased and too lax. For years, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington, D.C.-based consumer watchdog group, has advised consumers to avoid saccharin, Ace-K, an artificial sweetener approved by the FDA in 1998, and even aspartame, after a 2007 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives showed increased incidence of cancer in rats with long-term exposure to it. However, a recent review of aspartame in Critical Reviews in Toxicology concludes that there is no evidence to support its association with cancer.

And, despite CSPI’s warnings, its executive director, Michael Jacobson, acknowledges, “The risk that any individual will develop cancer as a consequence of consuming aspartame is very low. But when millions of people are routinely consuming [a variety of ingredients that may pose a slight risk], the overall risk of cancer may become very significant.”

The Reassuring Scoop

Sucralose, the newest artificial sweetener, hasn’t raised red flags with CSPI. And those wary of anything “artificial” now can choose from several “natural” options: xylitol and erythritol, sugar alcohols long used in foods marketed to people with diabetes.

But safe doesn’t necessarily mean tasty—or even acceptable. How do these sweet substitutes stack up? We put some of the most popular ones to the test (in beverages and “sugar” cookies).

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