Some sweeteners are “nutritive,” meaning they provide calories. (Calories are units of energy that power our brains, muscles and the rest of our body machinery.) Sugar alcohols like sorbitol and mannitol are, for example, known as nutritive sweeteners.
“Non-nutritive” (aka “artificial”) sweeteners are calorie-free because our bodies do not digest them for energy. They basically pass unchanged through our digestive tracts from the mouth (where we perceive their sweet taste) to the other end. These substances are several hundreds to several thousands of times sweeter than sugar; thus, these high-intensity sweeteners are used in teeny tiny amounts. Acesulfame-K, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, sucralose and tagatose are non-nutritive sweeteners currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.
A plethora of scientific studies show that these sweetening agents are safe for humans. Some recent animal studies, however, may indicate we may not have the entire story – yet.
Scientists at Marquette University, for example, compared the effects of high amounts of sugar and the sweeteners aspartame and acesulfame on mice that are genetically prone to get diabetes. They found that large amounts of any of these substances increased the risks for these animals to become obese and develop diabetes.
What’s going on? We already know that excessive amounts of sugar can make us fat, and contribute to conditions like diabetes and heart disease. And sweeteners can certainly help us cut back on added sugar and excess calories.
Yet some research suggests that when we consume a sweet taste without its usual calories, the body’s ability to regulate our appetites could be getting confused. (Perhaps that is why one person I know who will remain anonymous feels like eating M&Ms while drinking a diet Coke.)
Another area still being explored is our microbiome – the good and bad bacteria that reside in our lower intestines. These bugs feed on what comes down the track, including dietary fiber and, perhaps, according to some recent studies, non-nutritive sweeteners.
Organizations like the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association tell us to consume sugar, as well as non-nutritive sweeteners, “judiciously.” I’ll go with that.