A look past the headlines reveals the truth about the safety of low calorie sweeteners

Is it the Science or the Sweeteners?


Those colorful little packets of low calorie sweeteners have been on tabletops since the 1950’s when the pink ones first appeared. The blues ones followed in 1981, with yellow, green and orange filling in the rainbow over the next 30 years. The sweetening agents in those packets have also been used in thousands of foods and beverages providing us with a range of sugar free and reduced or no calorie products.

For those of us who have been regular users of low calorie sweeteners in one form or another, their availability has added up to countless calories that we haven’t consumed since they’ve been available. I find it comforting to know I’ve saved 140 calories for every can diet soda I’ve drunk, 30 calories for each packet of sweetener I’ve used and 120 calories for every 8 ounce container of light yogurt I’ve eaten. And I could go on.

So if, like me, you’re also a regular user of low calorie sweeteners, you’re probably wondering why everyone hasn’t embraced their calorie-saving benefits. After following all of the negative press they have received, I think I can explain.

Science Isn’t Emotional

Whenever you see a headline or hear a news broadcast about low calorie sweeteners they always tilt towards the sensational. It seems no one can talk about them rationally, objectively, unemotionally.

But questions that can be answered by sound scientific research are not emotional. The answers are reached by following precise, methodological procedures and the results are published so all the world can see them.

Everyone may not like the results, but you can’t argue with facts. Yet when it comes to reports on low cal sweeteners, they’re always tainted with opinion, conjecture and suspicion.

There is No Conspiracy

Speaking of suspicion, some of the controversy surrounding the safety of low cal sweeteners stems from the belief by a radical minority that you can’t trust the FDA, a government agency, for ruling on the safety of what’s in our food. These naysayers actually believe the chemists, microbiologists, toxicologists, food technologists, pathologists, molecular biologists, pharmacologists, nutritionists, epidemiologists, mathematicians, sanitarians, physicians and veterinarians who serve as food safety experts at the FDA are all corrupt.

I don’t believe in that conspiracy, but for those who do, I have three questions:

  1. If you don’t trust the FDA’s ruling on low cal sweeteners, what about the thousands of other products they have jurisdiction over, including food additives, infant formula, cosmetics, non-prescription drugs, medical devices, and veterinary products?
  2. How do you explain the fact that the regulatory agencies in more than 100 countries have reviewed the research on low calorie sweeteners and have also found them to be safe for use by their populations?
  3. Do you also doubt the integrity of independent health organizations, such as the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and American Diabetes Association, since they, too, have endorsed the safety of low calorie sweeteners?


New Research Doesn’t Cancel Out Old

Even if you accept the wisdom of the experts, what do you do when a new study comes along that “suggests” a particular low calorie sweetener “may” be “linked” to some problem? Whatever you do, don’t toss out all your diet drinks and sugar-free desserts. Those studies do not prove the sweetener caused the problem in question. The researchers have simply made a “connection” between point A and point B, and they’d have to do a whole lot more research in order to connect those dots.

If and until that research is done using the kinds of studies that can prove cause and effect, preferably in human beings, the existing body of evidence stands firm. It helps to keep in mind that much of the scientific process is based on trial and error, and half of that process results is errors. That’s why we don’t abandon the proven and tested body of evidence we already have based on a single study.


How Much Evidence Is Enough?

But for those who still aren’t convinced we know enough about low calorie sweeteners, I offer these final facts:

  • over 200 studies have been done that support the safety and effectiveness of low cal sweeteners
  • low calorie sweeteners have been used around the world for over 40 years
  • more than 200,000,000 people (that’s 200 million) safely use and enjoy low calorie sweeteners!

As a registered dietitian who has been advising consumers about healthy eating habits for over 35 years I feel confident that low calorie sweeteners are not a problem. And when they are used in place of sugar as part of a balanced diet complemented by regular physical activity they can help prevent weight gain – and that is a really big problem.

Posted in Calories, Food Trends, Ingredients, Obesity, Sweeteners, Weight Control and tagged , , , .

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