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Artificial Sweetener : Our Friend or Foe?

We love sweetness as we feel satisfied and pleasure the moment sugar touches our tongue. However, added sugar has been linked with the growing problem of overweight and obesity. Thus, the food industry has developed an option – artificial sweetener which gives lower-calorie but just-as sweet as real sugar. There is debate in the expanding use of artificial sweetener. Let’s find out more about artificial sweeteners.

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What is Artificial Sweetener?

Artificial sweeteners are also known as non-nutritive sweetener which provides no or a few calories per gram, with intense sweetness as compared to sugar. They are increasingly popular as an alternative to sugar as they are calorie-free, have less impact on blood sugar levels, and do not promote tooth decay. The common food sources of artificial sweeteners are chewing gum, diet soda and in “sugar-free” and “no sugar added” products.

In general, they are considered safe for consumption because they are not metabolized in the body. The United States Food and Drug Administration (US-FDA) authority has approved six artificial sweeteners, including saccharine, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame-K, and stevia for use in humans and has classified them under generally recognized as safe (GRAS) category.


#1 Is Artificial Sweetener a Healthy Option in Weight Management and Blood Sugar Control?

Dietitian: When consumed within daily acceptable limit, artificial sweetener may be a helpful tool in managing weight and blood glucose level by limiting carbohydrate and energy intake. However, the evidence for health effects due to the use of artificial sweeteners is conflicting. Potential harms from the consumption of artificial sweeteners could not be excluded.


#2 Is Artificial Sweetener Suitable for Diabetic Patients?

Dietitian: Diabetic patients may consider artificial sweeter as sugar replacement in short term period for blood glucose control and they are advised to consume artificial sweeteners in minimal amount. They should not rely on artificial sweetener in the long-run. Research has found that long-term use might pose harmful effects among diabetic patients. They are encouraged to reduce sugar intake gradually as our taste buds can get adjusted and adapted for less sweetness as time goes. Besides, diabetic patients are recommended to include 2 exchanges of fruits in your daily intake as it provides natural sweetness, and dietary fibre which helps in blood sugar control.


#3 Who Should Not Take Artificial Sweeteners?

Dietitian: Aspartame breaks down into phenylalanine on digestion. Therefore, people with phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot take aspartame because their body cannot break down the amino acid phenylalanine, and eventually the accumulation of phenylalanine causes toxicity to brain tissue.

Table 1: A Summary Report from the Center of Science in the Public Interest on the Levels of Safety of Different Artificial Sweeteners

Source: Malaysian Dietitian’s Association. (2013). Medical Nutrition Therapy Guidelines for Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (2nd ed). Malaysia: Malaysian Dietitian’s Association.


Take Home Message

In general, artificial sweeteners are safe to consume within the acceptable daily intake levels. However, large scale of clinical studies is warranted due to their invalidated benefits. Consumers especially those with diseases are encourage to consult dietitians or nutritionists before taking artificial sweeteners in order to assess the overall individual benefits and risks. Last but not least, it is important to read the food labels when buying a product. Do remember that sugar-free doesn’t mean calorie- or carbohydrate-free, and it still may be high in fat, saturated fat, or salt.



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