In fashion, which I know absolutely nothing about, believe me, it’s vital to know about the next new thing. As the fashion changes, so must one’s wardrobe.
In food, marketers would like you to believe it’s the same system. Chemists create a new “food” in a lab, advertisers promote it, and once it’s in every box in the supermarket, we all eat it. As food fads change, so must one’s pantry.
Something about that strikes me as odd.
I strongly feel there’s a danger in eating the next new thing.
In primitive human civilization, the crazy one who tried eating something new was the test dummy. If he died, people wouldn’t eat it anymore. If he survived, party on!
I choose to be the cautious observer, preferably for centuries, to make sure what I put in my mouth is actually food, and brings nourishment to my body. If someone created it in a lab, I question why I should consume it. (Related: 7 Everyday Foods Not Proven Safe for Kids)
As a Christian, I believe that God created a good world with everything we need in it to survive. And while He also gave us humans the sense to make amazing inventions that certainly improve our lives, I am hesitant to jump into actually eating them. I’d rather trust a chef to use God-given food to create a great new recipe than a scientist to make a great new food.
Artificial sweeteners all fall into the category of man-made “foods,” and they’re worth exploring individually so you know what to look out for, and why.
Let’s try not to be the test dummies.
If your child goes to school, chances are they’ve ingested some artificial sweetener in their time there.
Got a Valentine’s Day party coming up? Artificial sweeteners might be invading your school, hidden in juice or candy from well-meaning parents.
What’s Wrong with Juice?
I once went on a juice rampage as part of a challenge to school food advocacy. Let me tell you how all it got started:
My son, the saver, brought home an empty bottle from a birthday celebration in his first grade room just before Christmas. (He wanted to make something out of it, in case you were wondering.) I knew there was nothing good inside, but I had artificial food colorings on the brain that week after an article at Sorta Crunchy got me sorta thinking.
I absent mindedly read the ingredients and nearly bruised my jaw on the dresser when I got to the end and saw not only Red 40, which I expected, but sucralose. In case you’re not up on evil things one might find on an ingredients label, sucralose is Splenda, one of the newer no-calorie artificial sweeteners to hit the market.
Although I’m guessing I don’t come across very lenient online, I really let a lot of things slide in real life. I usually just cringe at high fructose corn syrup rather than banning it (when others are serving, not at home!). I look the other way when it comes to fake food coloring (more on that topic here). I hate when kids are given juice, but I know it’s a fun treat for a party.
Everyone has to have some un-crossable, non-negotiable, never-compromise-on-them lines. One of mine is artificial sweeteners. They are absolutely never to cross my children’s lips. Ever.
My son knows this very well and would never drink anything labeled “diet,” and after last soccer season, he even recognizes the artificially sweetened version of Gatorade, “G2.” This one wasn’t his fault at all.
I quickly flipped the bottle around to see what it said on the front. I was looking for the telltale signs of artificial sweeteners: “low sugar” “reduced sugar” or “lo-cal.” Nothing. I can’t even figure out why the punch had sucralose in there since the first ingredient was still high fructose corn syrup.
The Birth of a Juice Activist
The bottle was empty.
The line had been crossed.
I had to do something about it.
I realized that education was the only way out of this chemically sweetened mess, so I decided to talk to Paul’s teacher to see if she would let me share information with the classroom parents about how to find artificial sweeteners on labels and why they’re no good for kids.
All of this, plus another story in which someone peed their pants, was the genesis of the entire week of school food advocacy here at Kitchen Stewardship. I have a “juice decoder” to help people determine what juice is perhaps okay to drink and what is totally unacceptable, especially for kids.
So if you know all this stuff, and you’d never touch artificial sweetener with a 10-foot pole anyway, I offer a challenge to you this week to do some real food evangelizing. Teach someone else how to read a label and avoid fake sweeteners, or better yet, teach someone how to buy food without labels.
Juice isn’t the only kid food where artificial sweeteners are lurking.
Watch for Sneaky Artificial Sweeteners In:
- chewing gum (try finding one without it for a plane trip)
- yogurt (Light n fit, low cal, added fiber)
- “less sugar” juice
- pudding, jello
- snack bars
- lite popcorn
- well, “lite” anything!
- Watch for words like “lite” “less sugar” “low sugar” “sugar free” “diet”
Certainly, many of you don’t really buy food with labels but make your own and focus on real meats, vegetables, fruits and healthy fats. However, especially if you have children, you’re going to be presented with packaged food treats. Unless you swear off everything in a bag or a box, you’re going to want to learn to watch out for these particular evils so you can decide if a food is an acceptable compromise at a party or a never-gonna-let-it-pass-the-lips-of-MY-child kind of thing.
Artificial Sweetener: Aspartame
What is it? A proprietary, patented chemical that has something to do with Phenylalanine. My eyes kind of crossed reading the chemical description, so if you really want to know what aspartame is, Wiki will tell you. (The phenylalanine means that folks with PKU need to avoid it.)
Here’s your first clue something is not a food – you have no idea what it is or how it’s made.
Names to watch for: Nutrasweet, Equal, AminoSweet, phenylalanine, aspartame – be careful in unassuming things like vitamins, medicines, and foods with added fiber.
Discovered: 1965, on accident while trying to create an antiulcer drug. Yep, made by a scientist so sloppy he would lick his finger in a lab. “Hey, that’s sweet! Maybe we can eat it…”
Interesting anecdote on how aspartame got approval here – it may be from a biased source, but it’s fascinating if true!
Used in food since: 1983 (beverages), 1993 (everything else)
A must-read: the first few pages of the statement by Dr. John W Olney, M.D., to the aspartame board of inquiry in 1980, recommending that it not be approved for use in any population. He stood by that opinion in 1997 after watching the rate of brain tumors increase 10% since aspartame’s approval.
Is it dangerous? Why? Yes! Sources may be split, but I’m not.
Aspartame is a neurotoxin and an excitotoxin, which make it particularly harmful for children, in my opinion, because their brains are so much less protected that adults’ brains. It may be linked to birth defects, cancer, brain tumors, and weight gain. (source)
Recent studies in Europe show that aspartame use can result in an accumulation of formaldehyde in the brain, which can damage your central nervous system and immune system and cause genetic trauma.
Aspartame has had the most complaints of any food additive available to the public. It’s been linked with MS, lupus, fibromyalgia and other central nervous disorders. Possible side effects of aspartame include headaches, migraines, panic attacks, dizziness, irritability, nausea, intestinal discomfort, skin rash, and nervousness. Some researchers have linked aspartame with depression and manic episodes. It may also contribute to male infertility. (source)
Many people drink diet sodas (almost always sweetened with aspartame) to lose weight or stay thin – unfortunately, whenever our bodies eat something sweet, our brains expect calories to follow, AND we crave more sweets. Artificial sweeteners may damage the body chemistry, leading to weight gain, and they definitely increase cravings for sweets, causing many people to overindulge. (source)
One of the things aspartame breaks down into is methanol. Yuck. It doesn’t actually last very long – somewhere between a week and 300 days, depending on what it’s mixed into.
Medicine.net and CNN cite the safety of aspartame (WebMD and Mayo Clinic say it’s just fine, too), but they also point out that the last big study done (in 2007) was funded by a company that makes aspartame. In face, many of the sources claiming aspartame is safe can be traced back to the companies that market aspartame. This article does an amazing job tracing the money and business/political ties of those who promote aspartame and those who approve it for use in food. Scares me.
Other notes: Don’t diabetics need artificial sweeteners, though? No way – if you’re interested in diabetes and real food, you must read Brandy’s thoughts on her 27 years of diabetes management with zero artificial sweeteners!
Kids: I’m particularly concerned about the neurotoxicity of aspartame. Dr. Olney pointed out in 1980 that aspartame killed neurons in lab rats, and that children’s nervous systems aren’t protected by the blood-brain barrier. He told the FDA, “We can be reasonably certain there is no margin of safety for the use of aspartame in the child’s diet.” They didn’t listen.
Artificial Sweetener: Sucralose
What is it? Made from sugar with extra chloride bonded to it. The idea is that sucralose isn’t digested, so you can consume something sweet, then absorb zero calories from the sweetener. However, some studies show that up to 25-30% of sucralose IS absorbed into the body.
Names to watch for: Splenda
Used in food since: 1998/2006
Is it dangerous? Why? Probably. Sucralose gets a much better reputation than many other artificial sweeteners, but my hunch is that the reason is simply that there haven’t been any long term studies yet, since Splenda is so new. One Duke study, which is pegged as unreliable, found that sucralose “reduced the amount of good bacteria in the intestines of rats by up to 50%, increased the pH level in the intestines, [and] contributed to increases in body weight.”
Those adverse effects haven’t been seen in humans, however.
Right. Because no one I know is populated by bad bacteria/weak immune system, suffering from chronic fatigue or pain (high pH symptoms) or gaining weight.
Other notes: If sucralose is passed through without being broken down in the body, guess where it goes? The waste stream, and ultimately back into the environment.
Swedish measurements have proven that wastewater treatment has no effect on sucralose, and while we don’t have proof that it will harm the environment, we do know that the levels of sucralose in the ecosystem will increase since it’s not being broken down. In a U.S. study, sucralose was found in over 75% of drinking water. What the consequences may be, we can only guess.
Kids: Unfortunately, once Splenda was approved for food, it started sneaking into foods that previously did not have artificial sweeteners. Many products marketed for kids like “lower sugar” juices, ice cream, yogurt, and much more, have Splenda in them. It’s not always clear from the front of the package, like a diet soda vs. a regular soda, when a product contains Splenda (sucralose), and it’s often combined with regular sweeteners like sugar and high fructose corn syrup. This article was the most fascinating I read, and it pointed out that we are absolutely the guinea pigs for the safety of Splenda. I’m not willing to let my children be test dummies:
“Thanks to an agreement between McNeil Nutritionals (makers of Splenda) and PTO Today, which provides marketing and fund-raising aid to parents’ associations, your elementary school’s next bake sale may be sponsored by Splenda — complete with baked goods made with the product.” (source)
Artificial Sweetener: Neotame
What is it? Modified version of aspartame: “a chemically modified molecule derived from the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid.” (source) It’s stable under heat, whereas aspartame is not, so it can be used in baking. It’s also more potent, 30 times sweeter.
Names to watch for: ??? Here’s the scary part: because it’s so sweet, manufacturers use very little, and labeling laws don’t require ingredients to be listed if they are less than 1% of the total mass. Therefore, neotame could be in foods without being listed on the label or hidden under the ambiguous umbrella term “natural flavors.”
Used in food since: 2002
Is it dangerous? Why? Chemically similar to aspartame, neotame is supposed to be safe for those with PKU, but really, because there aren’t ANY studies available to the public (over 100 have been done, marketers claim…), how can I even entertain the thought of consuming it???
Other notes: Neotame is marketed as “a flavor enhancer that ‘accentuates and lifts the flavors in food.'” Sounds like MSG to me. I don’t trust it, but now at least I know what to watch for in the ingredients labels!
Artificial Sweetener: Acesulfame potassium
What is it? a potassium salt – technically, “the potassium salt of 6-methyl-1,2,3-oxathiazine-4(3H)-one 2,2-dioxide.” That doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, either.
Names to watch for: Acesulfame K, Sunett, Sweet One
Discovered: accidentally in 1967
Used in food since: 2003
Is it dangerous? Why? Unknown. The body is unable to break it down, so it passes through undigested. This may interfere with general metabolism. Linked to breast and lung cancer, reactive hypoglycemia, but studies questioned.
As with other artificial sweeteners, Ace K can cause an increased craving for sweets.
What perhaps concern me most about this chemical is the obvious lack of information about it. I feel like there aren’t even enough studies to dispute. It’s definitely a case of “innocent until proven guilty,” which is great for people, created inherently good, but downright dangerous for food products. Even the innocent are in jail until it’s proven.
Other notes: Check your medications for this one, especially chewables and liquids. Acesulfame K is often added to them to make the medicine more palatable.
Artificial Sweetener: Saccharin
What is it? It’s called benzoic sulfilimine, which is made starting with toulene, an ingredient in paint thinner. Chemists then use such things as sodium nitrite (a carcinogen I avoid in bacon and lunchmeat), hydrochloric acid, chlorine, and ammonia…and some other stuff…I am not a chemist!…to then create saccharin. Yummy. And they thought we should eat this WHY?
Names to watch for: Sweet’N Low
Discovered: 1878, on accident while working on coal tar derivatives. Again, yum.
Used in food since: Widely since sugar shortages during World War II.
Is it dangerous? Why? Unclear. Saccharin passes through the system undigested but can cause insulin release because of its sweetness.
It’s the oldest artificial sweetener, and there really isn’t much reputable data to show that it’s harmful. It’s often called the “safest” of all artificial sweeteners. “No study has ever shown a clear causal relationship between saccharin consumption and health risks in humans at normal doses.”
Other notes: Saccharin is put into infant formulas! Gah!
Are There Any Safe Calorie-free Sweeteners?
Worried about stevia dangers? Just make sure you know how to find pure stevia vs. those name brand counterfeits that are mostly made of something other than stevia.
For information on better, more natural sweeteners, check out the Sweet, Sweet Summer series.
Unless otherwise noted, images used with permission from GraphicStock.com.