If you’re trying to reduce the sugar in your diet to save your teeth and waistline, artificial sweeteners seem like a welcomed alternative. You can cut the calories and tooth decay without sacrificing your sweet tooth. Understanding their pros and cons can help you make an informed choice on whether or not the benefits for your mouth outweigh the potential drawbacks.
Understanding artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes
A sugar substitute is any sweetener that you use instead of regular table sugar (sucrose). Artificial sweeteners are just one type of sugar substitute.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes. This group includes acesulfame potassium, Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), neotame, saccharin, and sucralose. Some are derived from naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar itself. Artificial sweeteners are also known as intense sweeteners because they are much sweeter than regular sugar.
Sugar alcohols and novel sweeteners
Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, but they also can be manufactured. They aren’t sweeter than sugar — in fact, some are less sweet than sugar and they contain calories. But they’re lower in calories than regular sugar, making them an attractive alternative. Despite their name, sugar alcohols aren’t alcoholic.
Novel sweeteners are combinations of various types of sweeteners. Novel sweeteners, such as stevia, are hard to fit into one particular category because of what they’re made from and how they’re made.
As with artificial sweeteners, the FDA regulates the use of sugar alcohols. Approved sugar alcohols and novel sweeteners include substances like sorbitol, xylitol and stevia preparations that are highly refined like Pure Via and Truvia.
- Dental cavities. Unlike sugar, the sweeteners in the categories listed above don’t contribute to tooth decay. Many pro-teeth chewing gums now contain artificial sweeteners like xylitol.
- Weight control. One of the most appealing aspects of artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols and novel sweeteners is that they have virtually NO CALORIES. Each gram of regular table sugar contains 4 calories. A teaspoon of sugar is about 4 grams. So, drinking a 12-ounce can of cola contains 8 teaspoons of sugar. You’ve consumed 130 calories of pure sugar. So, naturally, if you’re trying to cut empty calories, you’d think consuming a diet soda with artificial sweeteners is a good alternative. But hold on; some studies have linked artificial sweeteners to weight gain. Research still hasn’t indicated why, however.
- Diabetes. Unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols and novel sweeteners generally don’t raise blood sugar levels because they are not carbohydrates, and thus many diabetics may opt to use artificial sweeteners.
Critics of artificial sweeteners say that they cause a variety of health problems including cancer; citing studies dating to the 1970s that linked saccharin to bladder cancer in laboratory rats. But the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies say there’s no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the United States cause cancer or other serious health problems. And numerous research studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities.
In our next blog, we’ll look at natural sweeteners, and give you our recommended guidelines for safely using any of these artificial sweeteners.