With a nod of approval this month from the Food and Drug Administration, the latest sugar substitute--neotame--is poised to become a new ingredient in baked goods, soft drinks, chewing gum, frozen desserts and other products.
Already approved in Australia and New Zealand, neotame joins the sweeteners aspartame (sold as NutraSweet and Equal), acesulfame potassium (Sunett and Sweet One), saccharin (Sweet'N Low) and sucralose (Splenda) now on the market. Neotame, which is about 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, will be the most concentrated sugar substitute available.
Sugar substitutes are one way, of course, to soothe a sweet tooth with fewer calories than sugar, honey or molasses. A 2000 survey found that 80% of adults in the United States use sugar substitutes at least once every two weeks, according to the Calorie Control Council, a trade group of diet food and beverage makers.
The American Diabetes Assn. and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines both support the use of sugar substitutes. And a large clinical trial at Harvard University found that "people who used high-intensity sweeteners [rather than sugar] were able to maintain a lower weight" than they did without the products, says George Blackburn, associate director of nutrition at Harvard and the study's lead author.
But foods sweetened with sugar substitutes are not necessarily low-calorie. For example, ice cream sweetened with a substitute may still be loaded with fat. "Unless you reduce the total calories you eat or increase physical activity, using sugar substitutes will not cause you to lose weight," the Dietary Guidelines note.
How many calories can sugar substitutes save? Depends on how much you use. Trade a teaspoon of sugar for a packet of sugar substitute and you'll save 16 calories. Drink a can of diet soda instead of regular and cut 140 calories.
Yes, but what about safety? That question has dogged sugar substitutes since the federal government banned the popular cyclamates in 1969 because of cancer concerns.
As Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, puts it, the evidence for safety of substitutes is not a "slam-dunk" either for or against their use. But it is strong enough against certain products--saccharin, for example--that the CSPI has asked the FDA to ban it. "There's substantial evidence that saccharin causes cancer," Jacobson says. The Calorie Control Council counters that saccharin is approved for use in 100 countries: "Considerable saccharin research indicates safety at human levels of consumption."
CSPI also has concerns about acesulfame potassium because safety studies on it are of "very poor quality, and indicate a possible cancer risk," Jacobson says. Both the FDA and an expert committee advising the World Health Organization set acceptable daily intakes for the sweetener at 15 milligrams (about 26 packets of Sweet One). The Calorie Control Council notes that it has been used since 1988 in the United States "with no known documented adverse health effects."
The most widely used sugar substitute? Aspartame. In 1999, there was a flurry of Internet traffic about neurotoxic effects of aspartame, "but there's scanty real evidence to support it," Jacobson says. "As with anything, people who believe they are sensitive should stop eating it."
Sucralose is the one substitute that is made from sugar. But because this sweetener can't be digested, it adds no calories. And since it doesn't alter blood sugar levels, it's an option for diabetics.
Not scrutinized by the FDA is stevioside, a dietary supplement sold as Stevia and used as a sugar substitute. While it is approved for use in 10 countries, including Japan, the WHO and the European Union's Scientific Committee for Food both concluded that there was not yet enough solid research data to declare that stevioside can safely be used as a sweetener.