On Nutrition: More on sweeteners

In response to a recent column about the safety of sugar substitutes, reader P.S. from Ohio asks: “What are your sources for this article? I have read in several sources which I consider reputable that aspartame and acesulfame are carcinogens. However, on the internet there is mixed information.”

Ah, yes, the internet is teeming with mixed information on many nutrition topics, especially this one. As I mentioned previously, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has the major responsibility to review the available evidence on the safety of food (and drug) products before they can be sold in the U.S.

Currently, the FDA has approved six sweeteners, including aspartame (brand name Equal) and acesulfame potassium (brand name Sweet One) as food additives. Three other plant-based sweeteners — stevia, monk fruit and thaumatin — have been designated “generally recognized as safe” for their intended use.

Regarding carcinogens, several reputable sources, including the American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research note that there is no conclusive evidence to link sugar substitutes to cancer.

That said, some scientific articles continue to question the safety of sugar substitutes. As they emerge, the FDA as well as the European Food Safety Authority re-examine the findings to see if any changes need to be made in their approval of the products. To date, neither agency has found valid evidence to change their current guidelines on the use any of the approved sugar substitutes.

I also mentioned previously that acceptable daily intakes have been set for each approved sugar substitute. The ADI is determined from research in which the highest dose an animal can consume without an adverse effect is then lowered another 100 times, to be extra safe.

To put this in perspective, I estimated my own ADI for aspartame, which is 50 milligrams per kilogram of my current weight, which I will not divulge. If my calculations are correct, I would need to consume 85 packets of Equal or 15 cans of diet soda every day for the rest of my life to reach the acceptable daily intake for aspartame. That’s a huge margin of safety.

So while reputable scientists continue to study the overall impact of sugar substitutes on our health, I feel comfortable with the 2022 guidelines from the American Diabetes Association, which state that alternate sweeteners “may be an acceptable substitute” for regular sweeteners such as sugar, honey and agave syrup “when consumed in moderation. However, people with diabetes should be encouraged to decrease both (sugar) sweetened and nonnutritive (sugar substitute) sweetened beverages, with an emphasis on water intake.”

I’d say that’s good advice for us all.

Barbara Intermill is a registered dietitian nutritionist and syndicated columnist. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition: The Uncomplicated Science of Eating.” Email her at [email protected]