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An FDA Guide to Sweeteners on the Market

The Food and Drug Administration has approved four sugar substitutes -- saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K, and sucralose -- for use in a variety of foods.

Saccharin was discovered in 1879, and was used during both world wars to sweeten foods, helping to compensate for sugar shortages and rationing. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar. In 1977, a Canadian study that looked specifically at the role of impurities -- and of other suspected tumor causes, such as parasites in test animals -- showed convincingly that saccharin itself was causing bladder cancer in rats. That same year, FDA proposed to ban saccharin for all uses except as an over-the-counter drug in the form of a tabletop sweetener. Congress responded by passing the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act, which placed a moratorium on any ban of the sweetener while additional safety studies were conducted. The ban was officially lifted in 1991 and saccharin continues to have a fairly large appeal as a tabletop sweetener, particularly in restaurants, where it is available in single-serving packets under trade names such as Sweet 'n Low. Because it has a good shelf life, saccharin is used widely in fountain sodas, and its stability at high temperatures makes it an option for sweetening baked goods, unlike aspartame, which degrades when heated. Saccharin also is favored economically because it can be made inexpensively.

Aspartame, approved in 1981, is 180 times sweeter than sugar. It is used in products such as beverages, breakfast cereals, desserts, and chewing gum, and also as a tabletop sweetener. In 1996, a study raised the issue that aspartame consumption may be related to an increase in brain tumors following FDA's approval of the sweetener in 1981. But analysis of the National Cancer Institute's database on cancer incidence showed that cases of brain cancers began increasing in 1973--well before aspartame was approved--and continued to increase through 1985. In recent years, brain tumor frequency has actually decreased slightly. NCI currently is studying aspartame and other dietary factors as part of a larger study of adult brain cancer.

Acesulfame Potassium was first approved in 1988 as a tabletop sweetener. Also called Sunett, it is now approved for products such as baked goods, frozen desserts, candies, and, most recently, beverages. More than 90 studies verify the sweetener's safety. About 200 times sweeter than sugar and calorie free, it is combined with other sweeteners. Worldwide, the sweetener is used in more than 4,000 products, according to its manufacturer, Nutrinova. Acesulfame potassium has excellent shelf life and does not break down when cooked or baked.

Sucralose, also known by its trade name, Splenda, is 600 times sweeter than sugar. Sucralose tastes like sugar because it is made from table sugar. But it cannot be digested, so it adds no calories to food. Because sucralose is so much sweeter than sugar, it is bulked up with maltodextrin, a starchy powder, so it will measure more like sugar. It has good shelf life and doesn't degrade when exposed to heat. Numerous studies have shown that sucralose does not affect blood glucose levels, making it an option for diabetics.

Sugar Alcohols are slightly lower in calories than sugar and do not promote tooth decay or cause a sudden increase in blood glucose. Though not technically considered artificial sweeteners, they include sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, and maltitol and are used mainly to sweeten sugar-free candies, cookies, and chewing gums. FDA classifies some of these sweeteners as "generally recognized as safe" and others as approved food additives.

Compiled from "Sugar Substitutes: Americans Opt for Sweetness and Lite," by John Henkel in FDA Consumer magazine.

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