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How healthy are artificial sweeteners

health-and-fitness Updated: Apr 20, 2007 19:04 IST
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With the entry of international players in the food industry, the Indian consumer has gained access to a wide variety of food products. Those among us who are health-conscious can choose from a range of health foods. For diabetics and weight watchers, there are several tabletop artificial sweeteners and low-calorie products made with artificial sweeteners.

A recently concluded study on the availability of artificial sweeteners conducted by the Department of Food and Nutrition, Lady Irwin College revealed that 12 brands of tabletop sweeteners are being sold in markets of Delhi. The market is also flooded with products sweetened with artificial sweeteners.

These include beverages like Diet Pepsi, Diet Coke, Catch Clear, soft drink concentrate like D-Lite, chewing gums like Sugar Free Orbit and candies like Ricola candies.

Confectionary and mithai shops are also catering to the demand for sugar-free sweets by adding artificial sweeteners to their preparations like kalakand, kulfi, cakes and ice-creams.

The study also looked at the consumption pattern of these products among Diabetics, Overweight individuals and college girls. Aspartame was found to be the most popular sweetener among the three groups of people.

However, most consumers were using these products without knowing which sweetener they are consuming. It is important for the consumer to know that these sweeteners can also be harmful if consumed in excess.

But how does one know how much is safe? According to the investigator, the first step is to know what you are eating. A simple way to know your intake is by reading the label of tabletop sweeteners carefully and noting down which chemical is present in it as a sweetener.

Multiply the given Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for that sweetener (see table) with your body weight. Now just divide the answer with the amount of chemical present in 1 tablet/1 sachet as given on the label. This calculation will give you an approximate idea of the number of tablets/sachets, which can be taken safely in a day.

A consumer must also be aware of the kind of sweetener present in the different processed food products. Diet colas, which are rapidly becoming a choice of today's adolescent and many other products, like Jell- O Sugar Free Gelatin Dessert, Jilla Mints Spearmint, contain a blend of aspartame and acesulfame K. Products like Catch Clear and Orbit chewing gum contain aspartame. Carbonated drinks should contain aspartame up to a maximum level of 700mg/l and acesulfame K up to 300mg/l.

The study revealed that young girls who were neither overweight nor diabetic were consuming these products with an effort to cut down their calorie intake.

In fact their mean daily intake of aspartame was higher than the diabetics and overweight individuals surveyed. All three groups were however consuming these sweeteners within the safe limits of intake.

With use of food additives like artificial sweeteners, safety becomes a prime concern. Toxicity studies for sweeteners like saccharin and aspartame are still under a cloud of controversy with some scientists claiming that even if these sweeteners are consumed at levels below the ADI, they can produce toxic effects as severe as bladder cancer by saccharin and leukemia by aspartame.

So what should the consumer do while scientists make up their mind about the safety of these sweeteners?

The best bet is to consume them in moderate amounts keeping your intake well below the ADI. Also remember that in order to keep fit and healthy, you need to do a lot more than just cut sugar from your diet. Only a diet well balanced with all nutrients and an active exercise regimen can help you keep trim and looking good.

And for diabetics it is good to develop taste for products without sweetness. Then only will they be able to resist the urge to consume sweetened products in the long run.

Table 1 Sweeteners present in different brands and their ADI

Sweetener Brands in which the sweetener is present ADI values given by JECFA as mg/kg body weight/day
Aspartame Equal, Sugar Free, Canderel, Originale Below 40
Sucralose Zero Calorie, Splenda, Sugar Rite and Blocal Below 15
Acesulfame K Canderel Granular (Blend of aspartame and acesulfame K) Below 15
Saccharin Sweetex Below 5

(Study conducted by Dr Pulkit Mathur and Ms. Poonam Singhal)