by Shawn Dolan, PhD, RD, CSSD
Non-nutritive sweeteners are used to reduce calories in food. These sweeteners are also called alternative sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, and very-low calorie sweeteners. There are five FDA-approved non-nutritive sweeteners which are labeled as food additives (sucralose is one of them).
Sucralose (Splenda) is one of the newest non-nutritive sweeteners on the market in the US. The FDA has determined that sucralose is safe for human consumption and does not pose carcinogenic, reproductive, or neurological risks to humans based on over 100 research safety studies. The acceptable daily intake (ADI) is set at 5mg/kg of body weight per day. For example the ADI for a 60 kg athlete would be 300 mg/d. Most Americans consume on average 1.1mg/kg/d of sucralose. However, because the FDA classifies a product as safe or non-toxic does that mean it is good for you? Furthermore, what health benefits does sucralose provide us?
Some concerns to keep in mind:
- Splenda is not actually calorie free (the first two ingredients are dextrose and maltodextrin), however, it is 600 times sweeter than sucrose so you need very little to sweeten food.
- The chemical process used to make sucralose includes the use of chlorine which is considered a carcinogen and may cause GI problems, skin irritations, and headaches. However, much of the information available on side effects is anecdotal and not based on well-controlled research trials. There is evidence to support headaches are alleviated by eliminating sucralose from the diet.
So…is sucralose bad for you? The answer probably depends on your definition of ‘bad’! If ‘bad” means unsafe, the answer is probably no. If the question is sucralose good for you, the answer is probably no also! However, there are products that contain sucralose that many of us find useful as athletes (i.e. sport drinks).
Next, let’s tackle other non-nutritive sweeteners.
Following are the other four non-nutritive sweeteners along with potential concerns regarding each.
- It was proposed in the 1970s to be banned from food due to a possible carcinogenic affect, instead products were labeled with a warning that it may be hazardous to your health, then in 2000, it was removed from list of potential carcinogens and found widely in the current food supply
Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)
- Provides calories, but a neglible amount due to its intense sweetness
- One of the most controversial non-nutritive sweeteners due to the fact that safety studies do suggest there is a relationship between aspartame and headaches, depression, cancer, and increased hunger
- Not safe for individuals with phenylketonurea (PKU) because of the phenylalanine
- Chemically related to aspartame but without the PKU dangers
- Scientific studies potentially exist to support its safety, however, they are not readily available to the public
- Many people do not realize it is included in a food (ingredient list)
- Contains carcinogen methylene chloride which may cause headaches, depression, cancer (and others) in humans
Sugar alcohols are considered nutritive sweeteners because they contain calories, although fewer calories than sugar (i.e. sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, etc). Sugar alcohols are not completely digested in the GI tract; therefore if eaten in large amounts, they can lead to abdominal gas and diarrhea.
Stevia is considered a sugar substitute, but has not been approved by the FDA as a non-nutritive sweetener to be used as a food additive in the US. However, stevia is permitted to be used as a dietary supplement in the US.
Keep in mind; sweeteners are non essential nutrients, meaning we do not need them in our diet (at least not physiologically)! In particular, non-nutritive sweeteners (as the primary ingredient) do not provide us with sufficient energy to fuel exercise; do not provide us with vitamins or minerals necessary for metabolism; and do not provide us with nutrients to help us repair or recover from intense exercise! However, non-nutritive sweeteners may be a good alternative to another sweetener if you are trying to lose or maintain weight, control blood sugar, or as an alternative to other foods in your diet. For example drinking a diet Hansen’s Grapefruit soft drink is probably a better alternative to drinking a Coke! In addition, non-nutritive sweeteners and sugar alcohols are used in sport drinks and electrolyte hydration tablets to provide flavor with fewer calories, which can be very useful for athletes. The bottom line…consuming non-nutritive sweeteners is probably not bad for you, but not necessarily good for you either, but at times useful!