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Artificial Sweeteners


History of Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners have existed since the middle of the 19th century when a freak event created saccharin in the basement of the Johns Hopkins chemistry building. A researcher had fallen asleep at his desk with his cigar hanging out of his mouth. The cigar fell, landed in a Petri dish, and set the chemical reaction into motion that created the sweet food additive. Since then there have been numerous attempts not only to create other forms of artificial sweeteners but also to prevent them from being consumed. Aspartame was created more recently in the 1960s during research to develop an ulcer drug. Sucralose is the newest sweetener and is sold under the brand name Splenda. It is derived from sugar and is made by replacing three hydroxide molecules with three chlorine atoms.
Sugar Substitutes and You
It's no surprise that in today's weight-conscious world, people are looking for every opportunity to cut calories. There are almost as many variations of low-carb diets as there are brands of bubble gum. The soda industry has capitalized on this with their lines of diet drinks. Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, and the like all use sugar substitutes like aspartame, saccharin, or sucralose to sweeten their beverages and keep the calorie count low. These products are incredibly popular in large part to the success of artificial sweeteners but also because of the perceived safety of the chemicals. Sucralose recently has become the most popular sweetener, quickly replacing aspartame in many soft drinks (including Diet Coke pictured here courtesy of Coca-Cola Inc.).
Saccharin is the oldest and most challenged sweetener on the market today. It has come under heavy criticism for the entirety, more or less, of its existence. Originally deemed "only suitable for invalids" in the early 20th century, it was later approved for the rest of the community following sugar shortages brought on by two world wars. Of the three FDA approved sugar substitutes, saccharin has the most evidence against it. There have been numerous studies that suggest a connection between saccharin consumption and bladder cancer in rats. Of the three, saccharin is by far the most likely to cause future problems although none have yet developed that can be directly linked with saccharin consumption. Saccharin is most readily identified by the pink package under the the brand name Sweet 'N Low (pictured to the right courtesy of the Cumberland Packing Corp.).
Aspartame, a member of the second generation of artificial sweeteners, was met with the same resistance saccharin was at its conception. However it held up far better under fire although linked with severe allergic reactions in people who have a rare, hereditary, disease known as phenylketonuria. Also, pregnant women are discouraged from consuming aspartame. The most common problems related to aspartame consumption are rare and at times include headache, nausea, and dizziness. When digested, aspartame is broken down into methanol, formaldehyde, and formate, however, the levels of these chemicals are negligible despite their toxic nature. Aspartame is sold under two different brand names, NutraSweet and Equal, and is the key sweetener in several diet soft drinks. In fact, in the 1980s, aspartame was slowly used to reduce the amount of saccharin in bottled drinks. Now, aspartame is generally the only sweetener used in most diet drinks as opposed to the mixture of saccharin and aspartame of the 1980s.
Sucralose is the newest of the sugar substitutes on the market and is one of the safest. Its chemical make up is such that it is not possible to digest it which means that the compound simply passes through the body. This yields no calories and no undesirable side effects. All you get is taste.  Because sucralose is made from sugar, it actually can be used much like sugar, although, because it is around 600 times sweeter than sugar, the manufacturers of Splenda use a mixture of sucralose and a flavorless starch to make Splenda measure up like sugar. As of now, there have been no reported problems connected with sucralose or Splenda and it would appear to be the safest alternative to sugar on the market. Recently, there has been a new movement within the bottling industry to replace aspartame, which is currently used in most diet drinks, with Splenda and a number of companies have already made the switch.
Written by C Thompson and reviewed by MJ Thompson, MD, Internal Medicine June 2005
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