Real-time Science: Sweeteners
Science evolves as evidence builds to determine if an ingredient, contaminant, or technology is safe. However, headlines are often faster than the research on an ingredient's harm or safety profile. This community request explores Artificial Sweeteners.
What are sweeteners?
Any ingredient that adds a familiar sweet taste to our foods is a sweetener. We can find sweeteners in nature (e.g., honey, maple syrup), humans can make them from synthetic ingredients, or we can derive them from natural ingredients.
What types sweeteners are there?
Naturally-derived low-calorie sweeteners, like Stevia & Monk Fruit
What are sugar alcohols?
Sugar alcohols are compounds derived from sugars such as fructose and glucose.
We find sugar alcohols in many reduced-calorie sweetened food products such as gummy bears, chewing gum, frosting, dairy desserts, and more.
While sugar alcohols contain some calories, they do not cause the same blood-sugar spikes that common sugars cause and can be suitable for individuals with health conditions like diabetes.
Are sugar alcohols safe?
Sugar alcohols are safe for most individuals when consumed in moderation. However, if consumed in excess, some sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal discomfort and can have a laxative effect (1,2,3).
What about the sugar alcohol erythritol? Is erythritol safe?
A recent study that made headlines suggested that erythritol could pose a potential health risk related to cardiovascular events. However, the study is not conclusive.
Erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol we find in fruits, fermented foods (e.g., cheese), and it is naturally produced in our bodies (1).
The study showed that individuals with elevated erythritol levels were at greater risk for a cardiovascular event. However, the study is unable to decouple whether consuming additional erythritol through foods leads to elevated erythritol levels or if our body naturally produces more erythritol when we’re at risk of a cardiovascular event, which is known to occur.
Additionally, the individuals who partook in the study had underlying health concerns that put them at greater risk for adverse health outcomes, including cardiac events.
Epidemiological studies, like the study designed for erythritol, are fantastic tools to help scientists identify areas for future research. But, they are not designed to show causation. Rather, they show a correlation. There are also a number of confounding factors that impact epidemiological studies. Confounding factors are unmeasured variables that influence the interpretation of results when attempting to establish cause and effect.
In short, more studies are needed on erythritol exposure to ensure the safety of individuals who may have underlying conditions that put them at additional risk for a cardiovascular event.
What are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners, also called sugar substitutes, are created ingredients added to sweeten or enhance food and beverage products. These sweeteners are referred to as “high-intensity” because it takes much less artificial sweetener to achieve the same sweetness level as traditional sugar.
These sweeteners typically add very few, if any, calories to the products and generally do not contribute to blood sugar spikes, making them a safer alternative for people with medical conditions such as diabetes.
We find artificial sweeteners in many food and beverage products marketed as “diet” or “reduced-calorie.” Often, the sugar traditionally found in these products is replaced with a no or low-calorie artificial sweetener to maintain flavor while reducing the total calories consumed.
Are artificial sweeteners safe?
Artificial ingredients are not inherently bad, just as natural ingredients are not inherently good (no one wants to consume all-natural cyanide!). As with all ingredients, the amount someone consumes leads to health impacts.
However, some individuals with the rare genetic condition, phenylketonuria (PKU), are unable to process components of aspartame. Those individuals should not consume products containing aspartame.
Learn more at https://go.msu.edu/4xp5
What about the artificial sweetener sucralose? Is sucralose safe?
A recent study that made headlines suggested that sucralose could potentially adversely impact how our immune system function. However, the study looked at high doses of the ingredient in mice.
Sucralose is an artificial sweetener used as a calorie-free sugar substitute in food and beverage products.
The study showed that mice given large doses of sucralose in excess of what a person would consume in daily life could adversely impact the immune function of mice.
While the results are interesting and it does warrant further research, the study does not show that sucralose causes adverse health effects in humans.
What are naturally derived, low-calorie sweeteners?
Unlike artificial sweeteners, naturally derived low-calorie sweeteners are made from all-natural ingredients, most commonly Stevia and Monk Fruit.
While manufacturers derive these sweeteners from naturally occurring plants and melons, they are often chemically processed and can be added to other ingredients. This processing does not impact the health outcomes or the safety of the final product.
Are naturally derived low-calorie sweeteners safe? Are they healthy?
Using calorie-free stevia or monk fruit sweeteners instead of traditional sugar or other calorie-rich sweeteners can reduce the number of calories consumed.
Additionally, these ingredients can help individuals manage medical conditions such as diabetes because they generally do not contribute to blood sugar spikes.
Learn more at https://go.msu.edu/bxp5
The good news.
When consumed in moderation, sweetened treats made from an assortment of sweeteners are safe to enjoy. We're learning more about these ingredients, and as our knowledge grows, we can share more nuanced information on these subjects.
If you have any questions about foods and ingredients, please reach out to us on Twitter, send us an email, or submit your idea to us at go.msu.edu/cris-idea