Artificial Sweeteners — Are They Safe?

by Sheila McKenzie-Barnswell, B.Sc, R.N.C., R.D.H.

As an alternative to sugar, many individuals have turned to artificial sweeteners. These sweeteners were originally used as sugar substitutes for diabetics, but they are now being consumed in enormous amounts by dieters and the general populace. Most individuals ignore the labeling which states that "sweeteners" should only he used by individuals who must restrict their intake of ordinary sweets. In my practice as a nutritionist, I am often asked by clients about the safety of sugar substitutes. So I have decided to examine these sweeteners.

Saccharin (ortho-sulfamido-benzonic acid)

Saccharine was discovered in 1979 by Constantin Lahlberg. He had accidentally contaminated his bread by a coal tan derivative, when he tasted the bread it was to his surprise, quite sweet. This coal tan, derivative has been sold commercially since 1900, and was used almost exclusively for diabetics. Saccharin is not converted to glucose by the body, some early work showed that it was absorbed by the body and almost totally excreted in the urine. Since the early 1960s manufacturers have encouraged the general public to buy artificial sweeteners "diet products." Saccharin is approximately four hundred times sweeter than sugar, and about ten times sweeter than cyclamate. Saccharin has no caloric value and can help overweight individuals to lose weight. Saccharin is now being used in many products, including carbonated beverages, dietetic foods, home sweetener preparations and even some non-food substances. Popular soft drinks may contain up to 150 mg of saccharine in one individual tablet and packets such as Sweet and Low 15 to 50 mg which is equivalent to three teaspoons of sugar. Saccharin is not used in products that are subject to high heat such as in baking, canned foods or drinks sterilized by heat because when it is decomposed by heal it is less sweet. Saccharin is the synthetic sweetener most commonly used in North America. But how safe is it?

In a 1951 study by the F.D.A, saccharin concentrations of above 0.1 percent of the diet caused kidney damage, but not cancer in rats. In 1970 another feeding study in female mice did not indicate cancer but the bladder was not examined.

In 1957, a controversial experimental method in which a pellet composed of saccharin mixed with cholesterol was implanted in the bladder of mice. Several mice developed bladder cancer. in the same study however, tumors (lid not result from large and continued injections of saccharin in the mice and did not conclude that saccharine was cancer producing. However, some scientists believe that saccharin served to intensify the ability of cholesterol pellets to cause tumors. In March of 1970, scientists at the University of Wisconsin, using the same technique found that saccharine quadrupled the incidence of malignant bladder tumors. Implantation techniques do not conclusively prove that the cancer causing potential of saccharin but the F.D.A. did move to review the safety of saccharin. The testing continued in March 1972. One study at the Wisconsin A.R.F. Institute found malignant bladder tumors in several of the male rats which had consumed saccharin at a 5 percent dietary level. In December 1973, Purdom, Hyder and Pyhas at North Texas State University reported rats fed saccharin making up 5 percent of their daily diet intake had developed bladder tumors. Based on the carcinogenic evidence of those studies, the F.D.A. removed saccharin from the GRAS list of food additives (safety list). Saccharin's continued presence in widely used diabetic products had stirred up concerns about the body's storage of this sweetener. A study was performed by Byard et al. at Albany, New York indicating that 95 to98 percent of ingested saccharin is excreted unchanged in the urine and feces within 72 hours and that approximately 50 percent of the saccharin is excreted in about six hours. The remaining 2 to 5 percent is stored (or destroyed) within the body. Sonic evidence suggests that one week's abstinence from saccharin intake can eliminate the stored sweetener from the body.

Saccharin Warning

The warning printed on saccharin-sweetened products advises one that saccharine is a "non-nutritive sweetener for use by persons who must restrict their intake of ordinary sweets." Ironically, however, this refers to everyone! We now know about the dangers of unlimited sugar intake which is out of control in America. Non of us should consume refined white crystals of any kind.

Both sugar and artificial sweeteners dulls the taste buds. It takes a few to enable us to enjoy natural sweet flavours as in fruits. We will all he better off if we curtail our dependence on sweetened foods of any kind, "natural" or "artificial".

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