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A fter you order your favorite coffee drink, you walk to the counter to grab a stirrer and some napkins. Before your eyes can distinguish the words, you see numerous blue, pink, and yellow packets of sugar sweetener and table sugar in its own jar. The questions then arise: Which artificial sweetener should I use? Do they actually cause cancer? Are three packets too much? Since the early 1970s, sugar substitutes have been the subject of a vigorous public controversy regarding their safety. However, because they are claimed to be a healthy alternative to sugar and run in tandem with many dieting plans, they continue to be widely used today (National Cancer Institute 2007).

Sugar substitutes were developed much earlier than the branding of Equal® or Splenda®. Beginning in the mid-1800s, new and improved sugar substitutes enjoyed success in the world market. In 1811, the possibility of a sugar substitute gained attention when scientists discovered how to convert starch into sugar. Saccharine, invented in 1879, is the oldest of the artificial sweeteners. German chemist Constantin Fahlberg created saccharine and opened the world to noncaloric sugar substitutes. Saccharine gained popularity as World War I caused a sugar shortage to erupt. Sugar substitutes were no longer being used by those who could not consume sugar; they had proliferated because of their relatively cheaper production costs compared to sugar. In 1937, cyclamate was discovered as a sweetener up to thirty times sweeter than sugar. Cyclamate gained popularity after World War II and refueled the sugar-substitute craze. However, in the 1970s, cyclamate was banned because of accusations that it causes negative health effects (Shelke 2004: 518).

In the mid-1980s, the world consumption of artificial sweeteners surpassed that of sugar. Numerous social scientists have studied the history of artificial sweeteners and analyzed the various waves of consumption and possible factors responsible for such periods of consumption. Wilhelm Ruprecht believes there are two distinct waves of artificial sweeteners: One from 1885 to the 1960s and another from i970 to the present. Ruprecht argues that various factors have contributed to the rise, fall, and rise again of artificial sweeteners. Sugar shortages as a result of wars and casualties contributed to the cheap and efficient production of artificial sweeteners. At this time, artificial sweeteners grew in popularity for economic reasons (Ruprecht 2005).

In the past twenty-five years, however, the use of artificial sweeteners shifted from a substitute for table sugar that was scarce to a substitute central to dieting practices. In addition, society's obsession with avoiding obesity in the late 1980s brought about a resurgence of noncaloric food alternatives (Ruprecht 2005). However, the media's portrayal of artificial sweeteners and their numerous health risks have caused consumers and doctors to question the safety of the artificial sweetener in their daily cups of coffee and diet soda drinks.

Saccharine's bitter aftertaste and cyclamate's negative side effects catalyzed the arrival of aspartame in i965. Aspartame was marketed as a much sweeter and healthier sugar alternative (Shelke 2004: 519). In 1987 and i988, Pepsi and Coca-Cola both switched from an aspar-tame/saccharine blend to i00 percent aspartame as the sweetening ingredient for their diet soda drinks because of aspartame's better taste profile. Further, an even newer artificial sweetener, sucralose, entered the market. Sucra-lose is acid and temperature stable and has persisted as a popular sugar substitute. Therefore, artificial sweeteners used in carbonated sodas allow people to indulge in their favorite soft drinks without getting the calories (Hagelberg 2003: 363).

From the 1800s until today, many sugar alternatives have remained on the current market and, thus, it is important to describe the use of artificial sweeteners in diet programs. Caloric sweeteners, such as sucrose, glucose, and fructose, should be distinguished from nonca-loric or artificial sweeteners. Certain diet regimens, such as Atkins and South Beach, define and encourage sugar-free foods or restricted sugar intake in their plan. Sugar Busters! Cut Sugar to Trim Fat defines artificial sweeteners as substances used instead of sucrose (table sugar) to sweeten foods and beverages. Because artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than an equal amount of table sugar, smaller amounts are needed to assure the same level of sweetness. Artificial sweeteners, unlike sugar, do not elevate blood sugar or lead to weight gain.

Artificial sweeteners lack calories; therefore they are classified as food additives and must seek FDA approval before entering the market (Hagelberg 2003: 363). The FDA's passing of various sugar alternatives was seminal in their growing popularity. The National Cancer Institute clearly states on its website that "before approving these sweeteners, the FDA reviewed more than i00 safety studies that were conducted on each sweetener, including studies to assess cancer risk. The results of these studies showed no evidence that these sweeteners cause cancer or pose any other threat to human health." (National Cancer Institute, accessed March 20, 2007). Nevertheless, the link between the use of artificial sweeteners and cancer remains controversial. Therefore, they have been studied by many governmental and research organizations. In the i970s, these studies found an association between saccharine and the development of bladder cancer in laboratory rats, which caused panic among consumers and the media. However, results from other car-cinogenicity studies show no clear evidence of an association between artificial sweeteners and cancer in people. Still, some consumers remain wary.

The Government and the medical field's uncertainty about artificial sweeteners are evident in the changing health-safety status of sweeteners. Thus, Congress mandated that more in-depth studies of saccharine continue and required that any food containing saccharine carry a health-warning label. In 2000, saccharine was taken off the U.S. National Toxicology Program's Report on Carcinogens, where it had been listed since 1981 as a human carcinogen. Because the bladder cancer found in rats is due to a mechanism not relevant to humans, and because there is no clear evidence that saccharine causes cancer in humans, its removal from the list was appropriate. Saccharine's delisting led to legislation signed into law on December 2i, 2000, rescinding the warning label requirement. The back-and-forth listing and delisting of saccharine as a cancer-causing substance can be described as a potential reason for the confusion behind artificial sweeteners (U.S. National Toxicology Program 2007: 4).

As the effects of artificial sweeteners continue to be researched and as the FDA looks to approve future sweeteners, consumers still continue to use sugar substitutes in various parts of their diet. Many people capitalize on the noncaloric aspect of sweeteners and, therefore, use them in many of their meals as a healthy alternative to sugar with a guaranteed sweet taste (Andrews et al. 1998: 191-6). While alternative sugars elicit a lower glycemic effect on the body, control insulin levels, and consequently help prevent weight gain, they should be consumed in moderation and with caution. So, consumers in line at Starbucks should balance the pleasures of the sweetening capabilities of a packet of Splenda, but remain aware of the possible consequences.


Sweetener Facts


Aspartame Approved by the FDA in 1981, it is one of the Nutrasweet® most comprehensively studied sweeteners. It is and Equal® 200 times sweeter than table sugar and contains two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenyl-alanine. Those with the uncommon genetic disease called phenylketonuria (PKU) should avoid aspartame because it contains phenylalanine.

Saccharine Marketed before FDA approval was needed, it is Sweet'N'Low® a nonnutritive sweetener. Debate over saccharine's safety began when research was conducted that found that rats who were fed large amounts of saccharine were afflicted with bladder cancer; however, the long duration of its use by humans has resulted in no obvious problems thus the FDA has kept saccharine products on the market. It is 300 times sweeter than table sugar.

Sucralose Approved by the FDA in 1998, it is 600 times

Splenda® sweeter than table sugar. This nonnutritive sweetener is made from sugar, but its molecules are too large to be absorbed into the body. Splenda became popular because it has been marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar being low in calories and carbohydrates. Splenda is a multipurpose sweetener that can be used in many foods and beverages.

Fructose A natural sweetener derived from natural fruit sugar. It causes a lower elevation of blood sugar than table sugar and has been claimed to be an appropriate substitute for sugar.

See also Sugar Busters

References and Further Reading

Andrews, Samuel S., Bethea, Morrison C., Balart, Luis A., and Steward, H. Leighton (1998) The New Sugar Busters! Cut Sugar to Trim Fat, New Orleans, Ga.: Ballantine Books.

Bowen, James (2003) "Splenda Is Not Splendid," World National Health Organization, available online at <http://www.wnho.net/splenda.htm> (accessed March 20, 2007).

DesMaisons, Kathleen (2000) Addictive Nutrition, the Sugar Addicts Total Recovery Program, New York: Ballantine Books.

Hagelberg, G.B. (2003) "Sugar and Sweeteners," in Solomon Katz (ed.) Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, Vol. III, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, pp. 3 58-63.

National Cancer Institute "Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer: Questions and Answers." Available online at <http://www.nci.nih.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/ artificial-sweeteners> (accessed March 20, 2007).

Ruprecht, Wilhelm (2005) "The Historical Development of the Consumption of Sweeteners: A Learning Approach," Journal of Evolutionary Economics 15

Shelke, Kantha (2004) "Sweeteners," The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Vol. II, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 518-19.

U.S. National Toxicology Program (2007) "Report on Carcinogens, 11 edn, Appendix B. Agents, Substances, Mixtures, or Exposure Circumstances Delisted from Report on Carcinogens." Available online at <http:// ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/eleventh/append/appb.pdf> (accessed January 25, 2007).

Stevia An herb native to South America which has been used as a sweetener for many centuries. It is a natural sweetener that comes in both a liquid and powder form.

SLG/Jessica Sawhney

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