Since their introduction as sugar substitutes in various food and drinks, artificial sweeteners like acesulfame K have been accepted as the ‘healthier’ option. Many sugar-free options exist today, helping us lead healthier lives. However, questions persist about their effectiveness and safety. Surely, something that can satisfy our sweet tooth must cause weight gain? Others doubt the safety of artificial sweeteners, suggesting that ingesting chemicals such as aspartame and sucralose can cause cancer and other negative health effects. Which is the safest? We look at what science has to say.
Since the 1970s, obesity rates all around the world have been rising. Naturally, people first blamed our increased consumption of fat in our diet for well, getting fat. Health agencies were quick to declare that fat was the obvious culprit, so people began to reduce their intake of fatty foods. Despite this, obesity rates showed no signs of slowing their upward trajectory 1 .
Today, we know that eating fatty foods doesn’t make you fat. Rather, fat in our bodies is created by consuming excess calories. The amount of energy in food is measured in the number of calories, which is the amount of heat energy required to raise 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.
Fat is a ‘long-term’ storage of energy, sort of an investment our bodies make for when we need the energy later on. If we don’t immediately use the calories we consume, our body is more than happy to store them as fat. Unfortunately, the lifestyle we lead today involves consuming much more daily calories than we actually burn. These excess calories equate to a steady increase in fat, leading to weight gain and obesity. But where in our diet do these calories come from?Many ‘low-fat’ variants of food products are extremely high in carbohydrates and added table sugar (sucrose), making them not very low-fat at all. Do manufacturers of these products want us to know that, though?
One major source of calories was found to be table sugar (sucrose), copiously added by food companies to cheaply improve the taste of their products. Because sugar has such a high energy content, scientists and doctors quickly realized that our excessive sugar intake in various forms was responsible for rising obesity rates.
Humans tend to crave sugar, however, as a result of our diet in evolutionary history . To satisfy both our desire to lead healthy lifestyles and our sweet tooths (teeth?), many of us use artificial sweeteners as sugar substitutes. But just how healthy are they? Do these laboratory-made chemicals have a trade-off with regard to our safety?
Following the discovery of the first artificial sweetener, saccharin, in 1879, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has, at the time of writing, approved a further five as food additives. They are commonly used as sugar substitutes in candy, soft drinks and an ever-increasing array of confectionaries. Today, the most popular sugar substitutes you’ll find in your shopping trolley are sucralose, aspartame and acesulfame potassium.
Due to the potency of artificial sweeteners (several magnitudes higher than table sugar), only a small amount is needed to elicit the taste of sweetness. Thus, the number of calories consumed from artificial sweeteners is almost negligible. Furthermore, sweeteners like sucralose and acesulfame potassium can be considered noncaloric as they aren’t broken down and digested by the body at all.
Sucralose was accidentally discovered at British food supplier Tate & Lyle in 1976 when one of their researchers misheard ‘test’ for ‘taste’ ( yeah, it happened ) 2 . They had been synthesizing derivatives of sucrose (common sugar), hoping that by inserting chlorine into its chemical structure, they could prevent it from being digested in the body – a common strategy in drug modification .
It turned out that the triply substituted chlorine derivative was hundreds of times sweeter than sucrose, in addition to being almost noncaloric – most of the compound just passed through the body without being digested.
Over the next few years, more than 100 scientific studies involving sucralose were conducted in animal and human trials. All of them failed to show any carcinogenic, reproductive or neurological effects, highlighting the safety of the artificial sweetener. By the 1990s, sucralose was approved in various countries for use as a food additive and sugar substitute.Chlorination at the reactive -OH groups prevents sucralose from being broken down, digested and being stored as energy!
Yet another accidental discovery, aspartame was discovered at the pharmaceutical company G. D. Searle in 1965. A scientist working on a potential gastrointestinal secretion inhibitor spilled some crystalline compound on his hands, forgot about it, and promptly licked his fingers to help pick up some paper. Surprised by how incredibly sweet the compound was, the scientist licked it again to confirm his discovery 3 .
The company promptly worked to develop this amino acid-derived compound as an artificial sweetener. While many discoveries are the result of rigorous and meticulous planning , sometimes they arise from sheer dumb luck.
Aspartame, like sucralose, is hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar. It binds to G-protein coupled receptors on our tongue and palate that are responsible for sending the taste of ‘sweetness’ to our brains. However, unlike sucrose, its chemical structure doesn’t resemble sugar. Instead, it is the product of two amino acids – aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Aspartame in our body breaks down into these two products, both common components of proteins in our diet.The chemical structure of aspartame: it is formed from the condensation reaction of two amino acids – aspartic acid and phenylalanine (methylated).
Since it breaks down into stuff we would normally eat anyway, aspartame had to be safe, right? Instead of leaving it to chance, aspartame has been subject to over 100 studies conducted by health regulatory agencies around the world, all of which found the chemical to be safe for consumption. Additionally, multiple studies show that consuming food and drinks sweetened with aspartame instead of sucrose led to a significant reduction in both energy intakes and weight of individuals 4 .
In 1996, the FDA removed all restrictions surrounding the use of aspartame as a food additive. However, individuals with phenylketonuria – a rare genetic disease – cannot metabolize phenylalanine and hence must avoid aspartame, as well as other foods high in proteins containing phenylalanine.Popular artificial sweetener ‘Equal’, used by many diabetics, contains aspartame
Contrary to what these discoveries might suggest, chemists really aren’t that careless… Unfortunately, the story of how acesulfame potassium (aka acesulfame K or simply Ace K) was discovered really doesn’t help our cause. In yet another case of finger-licking-to-pick-up-a-piece-of-paper , a scientist working at German chemicals company Hoechst AG in 1967 discovered an intensely sweet compound 5 . This led to a range of compounds with a similar ring structure being synthesized, with the most promising of these being Ace K.Despite a very different chemical structure compared to aspartame and sucrose, acesulfame potassium activates the same G-protein coupled receptors in our tongue responsible for sweetness.
Ace K is a true noncaloric sweetener, as it is completely unreactive in the body. The fact that it passes out the other side intact highlights its safety; your body doesn’t even have to deal with it. On the shelf, it is stable over the course of several years. It can also be used in cooking since its chemical structure withstands high temperatures!
The FDA approved its use as a sugar substitute in 1992, and in beverages in 1998. To prove to the public just how safe acesulfame potassium was, a review conducted in 2006 showed that no human health problems were associated with its consumption 6 . Ace K as an artificial sweetener has no safety issues reported in the scientific literature, despite more than 15 years of extensive use across many countries.
Many sugar-free soft drinks contain a mixture of Ace K and aspartame as it provides a taste that is closest to table sugar. Today, artificial sweeteners are also prevalent in desserts, yogurts, jams and syrups, and even baked goods! One would think that given just how widely used they are, health and regulatory agencies like the FDA would have ensured the safety of all of them, right?
The short answer? They’re all extremely safe. Since the introduction of artificial sweeteners as substitutes for sugar, many studies have attempted to link their consumption with an increased risk of cancer and other diseases. ‘Reliable’ medical journals have published several; this in the face of hundreds of pre-clinical and clinical trials with evidence that any increased risk of disease was negligible. Inevitably, they were found to have published inconclusive results borne out of poor research practices and shoddy statistics 7 .
For example, a 1996 study concluded that the rise in brain tumor rates over the past 15 years coincided with the approval of aspartame 8 . The study also fed 320 rats an aspartame diet for 2 years, after which 12 of the rats were found to have developed brain tumors. While the media and the general public had a field day over the study – titled ‘Increasing brain tumor rates: is there a link to aspartame?’ – the scientific community was unimpressed. It turns out that the authors of the study had fallen victim to confirmation bias , cherry-picking the data to suit their theory. Furthermore, later trials involving aspartame-fed rats could not replicate the results of the study.
In another example, a 2008 study supported by the Sugar Association (who else?) – a trade group in the sugar industry – found that sucralose administered to lab rats affected their intestinal pH and increased the production of cytochrome p450 enzymes involved in metabolism 9 . However, a year later, an expert panel found that the study was deficient in several critical areas and its results could not be considered evidence that sucralose produced adverse effects in the rats 10 .
It isn’t simply funding from the sugar industry that has helped to propagate the idea that sugar substitutes are unhealthy. News outlets are quick to publish sensational and controversial pieces; after all, ‘Acesulfame Potassium Causes Brain Tumors’ makes for a better headline than ‘Even More Evidence That Artificial Sweeteners Are Safe’. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence backing the safety of artificial sweeteners today, it is rather absurd that such factors are still able to undermine the public’s perception of them.