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A Buyer's Guide to Sugar Substitutes

The good, the bad and the unacceptable.

Here’s a rundown of some FDA-cleared sweeteners—which have also earned the go-ahead from major health organizations, like the American Heart Association. To get FDA approval, manufacturers must submit dozens of tests to prove safety, and establish maximum intake levels (called Acceptable Daily Intake, or ADI). However, some groups, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), quibble with the quality of these studies, which are usually conducted by the manufacturers themselves, or companies they hire. A handful of sweeteners, such as stevia leaf extract, are classified by the FDA as GRAS—Generally Recognized as Safe. Even though “natural” sugar substitutes like these are often perceived as healthier options, GRAS sugar substitutes usually don’t have as much safety data as approved additives. And with the science changing all the time, it’s worth using any of them sparingly. See the guide below for information about each sweetener.

Saccharin

• Sweet’N Low
• Sugar Twin
• Necta Sweet
• Equal Saccharin

Regulatory status = FDA-approved additive

ADI for adults (number of packets) = 45 packets

Where you’ll find it
Tabletop sweeteners, “diet” or “light” foods like jams or candies, and medicines. Also used in fountain versions of diet sodas (to improve stability of sweet taste).

The scoop
Saccharin has a pronounced bitter aftertaste some hate and others crave. It was threatened with a ban in the 1970s when a few studies linked it to bladder cancer in rats. The National Institutes of Health later deemed the studies irrelevant because rats’ cancer-development mechanism is different from humans.’ Still, CSPI urges avoidance, claiming cancer risk can’t be fully ruled out.

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