How artificial sweeteners compare
Curious or confused about the differences between artificial sweeteners? Here’s what to know
Chemical name: Acesulfame potassium; AceK
Brands: Sunett; Sweet One
Used in: Often combined with aspartame and sugar alcohols in baked goods, gum and diet pop
Details: Health Canada has approved it, yet the U.S.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) still considers it one to avoid because safety studies in the 1970s were poorly conducted and rat studies showed the additive might cause cancer. According to the CCS, the available research suggests that when used in moderation, AceK is not a risk factor for cancer. Those on potassium-restricted diets or who have sulfa-antibiotic-based allergies should talk to their doctor about consuming products with AceK.
Many products combine AceK with other sweeteners, including sugar alcohols; these may cause bloating or gas.
When to limit: During pregnancy
Health Canada-recommended ADI (acceptable daily intake): Maximum 15 milligrams (mg) per kilogram (kg) body weight
Putting the ADI in perspective: That’s 20 cans of diet pop a day.*
Chemical name: Aspartame
Brands: Equal; Nutra-Sweet
Used in: Soft drinks, desserts, cereals and gum, and as a tabletop sweetener
Details: Health Canada, which approved aspartame in 1981, says there is no evidence linking it to cancer, diabetes, MS, seizures, lupus or allergic reactions, despite industry-sponsored studies from the 1970s, and anecdotal reports that cropped up after its approval in 1983, claiming otherwise.
The CSPI continues to caution users about aspartame based on three studies linking the sweetener to cancer in rodents. However, Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University, says at least one of the studies on aspartame is faulty. And Dr. Robert Nuttall, acting director of cancer control policy at the CCS, says concerns about aspartame are unfounded: “There is no evidence to suggest that eating foods containing this sweetener, when used in moderation, would pose a health hazard to healthy individuals.”
It is also deemed safe in pregnancy, according to the University of Guelph Food Safety Network. However, pregnant women may want to track their intake; a 2010 Danish study of 59,000 pregnant women published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that daily intake of artificially sweetened drinks boosted risk of preterm delivery. While the study did not distinguish the types of sweeteners, aspartame and AceK are the most popular ones in Denmark, say the researchers.
When to avoid: If you have phenylketonuria (PKU), a condition where you can’t metabolize phenylalanine, aspartame’s amino acid. Some people complain of headaches or dizziness from aspartame; there is no proven link.
Health Canada-recommended ADI: 40 mg per kg
Putting the ADI in perspective: That’s about 22 cans of diet pop a day or 40 glasses of diet lemonade crystals.*
Chemical name: Cyclamate
Brands: Sugar Twin; Sweet ‘N Low
Used in: Tabletop sweetener. It is not allowed as a food additive in Canada and carries a warning label.
Details: In high doses, cyclamate has caused cancer in laboratory rats, but there is not enough evidence to say it causes cancer in humans, according to the CCS.
When to avoid: During pregnancy, use only under a doctor’s advice.
Health Canada-recommended ADI: Maximum 11 mg per kg
Putting the ADI in perspective: That’s less than three sachets of Sugar Twin a day.*
Chemical name: Neotame
Used in: According to Jeff Cronin of the CSPI, neotame is rarely used at this time, but can be included in diet foods, soft drinks, tabletop sweeteners, cereals, powdered diet drink mixes and baked goods.
Details: It is chemically similar to aspartame but 40 times sweeter. It’s more stable, so is better for baking. It is also safe for people with PKU. Says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it is 8,000 times sweeter than sugar, so smaller amounts are used compared to other sweeteners. There is no evidence it poses health threats.
When to avoid: NA
Health Canada-recommended ADI: Health Canada has not set an acceptable daily intake.
Chemical name: Sucralose
Used in: Soft drinks, gum, baking mixes, ice cream, and as a tabletop sweetener; often used in combination with AceK
Details: It is approved by Health Canada. The CSPI downgraded it in 2013 from a “safe” to a “caution” rating pending review of an unpublished 2012 Italian study that found sucralose caused leukemia in mice. However, McGill University’s Schwarcz has issues with the study. “It was done by a research institute that in my opinion is not highly regarded in scientific circles. Instead of functioning through the proper peer-review process, they release invariably scary findings without providing the data. Splenda has been evaluated by regulatory agencies around the world and has been approved as a sweetener. That doesn’t exclude the possibility of individual idiosyncratic reactions, but it does mean there is no significant risk to the general population.” In a 2013 study, nutrition researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine discovered that when 17 severely obese people drank products containing sucralose, their blood sugar peaked at a higher level and insulin levels rose 20 percent higher. But the researchers say more studies are needed.
When to avoid: Says a 2012 study in World Journal of Gastroenterology, sucralose may worsen, or bring on, inflammatory bowel disease.
Health Canada-recommended ADI: Maximum 9 mg per kg
Putting the ADI in perspective: That’s about 10 cans of diet pop or 51 sachets of sweetener daily.*
Chemical name: Saccharin
Used in: Health Canada has approved it for use only as a tabletop sweetener to be sold over the counter in pharmacies. The product carries a warning label.
Details: Studies conducted on rats in the 1970s suggested that saccharin caused cancer, and it was delisted as a food additive in Canada. However, according to Health Canada, those studies were not relevant to humans, and as was the case when our original article was published back in 2009, Health Canada is still considering relisting saccharin for use in certain products in Canada.
When to avoid: During pregnancy, except on the advice of a physician
Health Canada-recommended ADI: Maximum 5 mg per kg
Putting the ADI in perspective: Depending on the brand, that’s about 10 packets of sweetener daily. *
* Based on a 150-lb woman