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Weighing the benefits, dangers of artificial sweeteners, other sugar substitutes

Carrie Snyder / The Forum

Little pink, blue and yellow packets have become staples of coffee shops, diners and kitchen tables across America.

Every day in the U.S., artificial sweeteners and other sugar alternatives are added to coffee and tea, used in processed foods, and substituted in recipes.

Most sweeteners are low-calorie or calorie-free, don't raise blood-sugar levels, and don't contribute to tooth decay.

They're widely used to help control weight and diabetes.

But they've been surrounded by controversy for years because numerous studies suggest the chemicals or chemical processes used to create them cause possible side effects.

Most of the findings are inconclusive.

Like anything else, aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet'N Low) and sucralose (Splenda) should be used in moderation, says Lindsay Vettleson, dietitian with IMA Healthcare in Fargo.

"Artificial sweeteners may increase your craving for sugar and cause one to eat foods high in carbohydrates and sugar," she cautions.

Perhaps that's why some research has suggested weight gain is associated with consumption of artificial sweeteners.

Here's a breakdown of the most commonly used sweeteners:

Sugar (sucrose)

• What they say: The dangers of excess sugar consumption have been studied for decades, but the key word here is "excess."

"There's nothing wrong with using good ol' plain white sugar, it's just a matter of portion control," Vettleson says.

Less-processed forms of sugar, like Sugar in the Raw, are also available. Sugar in the Raw (made from sugar cane) has similar calorie and carbohydrate content as white sugar but isn't as refined, Vettleson says.

• What you say: "I don't like any kind of substitutes. Nothing can replace the taste of real sugar, especially in drinks like coffee and lemonade. I don't use anything but." - Amanda Huggett, 26, Fargo

"I am allergic to artificial sweeteners, so my preference is sugar (white or brown) and sometimes honey. What is hard is that many restaurant foods and drinks are now sweetened with artificial sweeteners, and finding out which ones they are in can be trying." - Sharon

Sweet'N Low (saccharin)

• What they say: Sweet'N Low, first introduced in 1957, is made with saccharin, which is 300 to 500 times sweeter than sugar.

Fears over the safety of saccharin arose in the early 1970s, when studies linked the substance with the development of bladder cancer in lab rats, according to the National Institutes of Health.

However, the NIH says later studies failed to provide clear evidence of an association in humans.

• What you say: "I swear by Sweet'N Low!" - Joan Saye, 70, Horace, N.D.

"Sweet'N Low seems to leave a metallic after-taste that I just can't get rid of, and find very distasteful." - Doug P.

"Definitely Sweet'N Low. Equal doesn't dissolve as well, and doesn't have nearly as much sweet taste to it." - Amy Olson, 33, Grand Forks

Equal/NutraSweet (aspartame)

• What they say: Aspartame was originally considered for Food and Drug Administration approval as a drug but instead got the OK for public use as a food additive.

NaturalNews and other sources say the artificial sweetener has been shown to cause weight gain.

Janet Starr Hull, a nationally known scientist and author on the subject, claims overconsumption of the sweetener found in Diet Coke almost killed her.

Hull says she was diagnosed with Graves' disease, a fatal thyroid disorder, but it was actually aspartame poisoning.

Reports suggesting links to brain tumors and certain kinds of cancers have added to the controversy surrounding the substance, but the NIH says the findings contain inconsistencies.

• What you say: "Although I rarely put a sweetener in my coffee, when I do, it will be Equal." - Doug P.

"As one of the estimated 1 million people that suffer a reaction to NutraSweet, I read every label in the grocery store. My particular reaction was/is migraine headaches that cause a loss of vision, and it occurs within 15 minutes." - Tom Sklebar, 59, Millarton, N.D.

Splenda (sucralose)

• What they say: The NIH says sucralose, derived from sugar, was approved by the FDA as a tabletop sweetener in 1998, then as a general-purpose sweetener a year later.

The substance contains chlorine, a known carcinogen, but the makers of Splenda say it's "chemically bound" so it can't be absorbed into the body.

The company's new Splenda Essentials line adds B vitamins, antioxidants or fiber to the packets. "Most people have no problem getting adequate B, C and E vitamins on a daily basis," Vettleson says. "Fiber, on the other hand, is something that most Americans lack."

• What you say: "I do most of the cooking at home because I'm a diabetic, and (Splenda) can be substituted on a 1:1 basis usually. Can't get much simpler." - Dave Arnholt, 67, Moorhead

SweetLeaf/Truvia/Stevia in the Raw (stevia)

• What they say: A little leaf from South America is having a big impact in North America.

Sweeteners made from the extract of the stevia plant have no calories, carbs or glycemic index.

Dietitian Vettleson recommends stevia sweeteners to her clients, and her personal preference is Truvia, made with stevia extract.

One packet of Truvia provides the same sweetness as 2 teaspoons of sugar, the company's website says.

In France, Nestea and Sprite are sweetened with Truvia. The FDA hasn't approved all of stevia and its uses, but efforts are under way to change that.

In 2008, SweetLeaf became the first company to receive GRAS ("generally recognized as safe") status for a line of stevia products.

SweetLeaf doesn't use chemicals, alcohols, solvents or enzymes during extraction and purification, the company says.

• What you say: "Stevia by far ..." - Loree Hornstein, 59, Fargo

"Only natural sweeteners for me ... I was a diet soda drinker for about 20 years because I didn't want the calories that came with sugar. After reading about all the negative things from aspartame and other chemically created sweeteners, I went cold turkey on the diet soda and gave it up altogether nearly seven years ago." - Deanna Sinclair, 48, Detroit Lakes

"I don't care to use sugar ... the real McCoy or the fake stuff with all of the added chemicals. If I HAVE to, I will use stevia extract (Truvia)." - Leatha Campbell

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590

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