With overweight and obesity increasing at a fast pace, sugar substitutes abound and are taking the place of sugar in the market. Too much sugar is of course a major contribution to our caloric intake and weight gain, but sugar seems hard to avoid or resist.
As part of an overall weight control programme, low-calorie foods and beverages can help control calorie intake, therefore assisting in weight control.
This is the reason why so many people are giving up sugar and turning to artificial sweeteners.
Let’s try to understand a little bit more about one commonly consumed low-calorie sweetener used in the food & beverage industry – Aspartame.
Understanding artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes
Sugar substitutes are loosely considered any sweeteners used to replace regular table sugar (sucrose). Artificial sweeteners are just one type of sugar substitute. The chart below lists some popular sugar substitutes and how they’re commonly categorised.
Artificial sweeteners are attractive alternatives to sugar because they don’t add significant calories to your diet. In addition, you need only a fraction compared with the amount of sugar you would normally use as a sweetener.
Artificial sweeteners are widely used in processed foods, including baked goods, soft drinks, powdered drink mixes, candy, puddings, canned foods, jams and jellies, dairy products, and scores of other foods and beverages.
Possible health benefits of artificial sweeteners
One benefit of artificial sweeteners is that they don’t contribute to tooth decay and cavities. They may also help with the following:
One of the most appealing aspects of artificial sweeteners is that they don’t have significant calories. On the contrary, each gram of regular table sugar has 4 calories. Aspartame, for example, is 200 times sweeter than sugar and is used in very small amounts, thus adding almost no calories to foods and beverages.
If one is not able to give up sugar in order to lose weight and improve health, low-calorie sweeteners are a way of reducing calories, used together with a personalised meal plan and regular physical activity.
Artificial sweeteners may be a good alternative to sugar if you have diabetes. Unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners generally don’t raise blood sugar levels because they are not carbohydrates. People who have diabetes should talk with a dietitian and/or health care professional for advice in incorporating foods and beverages containing low-calorie sweeteners into their diets.
Possible health concerns with artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners have been the subject of intense scrutiny for decades. Critics of artificial sweeteners say that they cause a variety of health problems, including cancer. But according to the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies, there is no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for consumption cause cancer or other serious health problems. Numerous research studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women.
Artificial sweeteners are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as food additives. They must be reviewed and approved by the FDA before being made available for sale.
The FDA has also established an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for each artificial sweetener. This is the maximum amount considered safe to consume each day over the course of your lifetime. ADIs are intended to be about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns.
Aspartame is a low-calorie sweetener that provides sweetness to foods and beverages without adding significant calories. Nutrition and fitness experts agree that balancing the intake of calories with the calories you burn is important for health reasons. Aspartame can play a role in weight management programmes that combine sensible nutrition and physical activity.
Aspartame is not very heat stable, therefore it is not recommended for use in baking or in cooking methods that require extended exposure to high temperatures, as the flavour breaks down, reducing the sweetness of the final product. So, this sweetener is typically used in prepared foods and beverages that do not require heating during preparation, but can be added to a cup of coffee or tea.
Aspartame has been studied extensively and has been found to be safe by experts and researchers. Government agencies worldwide, including the FDA, have also reviewed the science and found Aspartame to be safe for human consumption.
Although it is considered safe for consumption, this sweetener has been the subject of several controversies since its initial approval by the FDA in 1974.
Potential health risks have been examined and dismissed by numerous scientific research projects. With the exception of the risk to those with phenylketonuria (PKU – a genetic metabolic disorder), Aspartame is considered to be a safe food additive by governments and major health and food safety organisations. People with PKU cannot metabolize phenylalanine, an amino acid that is found in aspartame and many other foods.
Foods and beverages sweetened with Aspartame are labelled to alert people who have PKU to the presence of phenylalanine. FDA officials describe Aspartame as “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved” and its safety as “clear cut”.
Always try to make informed choices, change your eating habits and adopt a diet plan for your well-being.
By Ana Rita Horta
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Ana Rita Horta is at Dietitian at the Hospital Particular do Algarve