Sweetener in the Spotlight: Is Splenda Safe?

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An article by Colette Bouchez on WebMD.com February 16, 2005 describes fear of artificial sweeteners, with some calming and cautious words from ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava, noting the list of artificial sweeteners tested and approved as safe:

You may be surprised to see saccharin on that list. In the 1970s, the FDA was going to ban saccharin based on the reports of a Canadian study that showed that saccharin was causing bladder cancer in rats. A public outcry kept saccharin on the shelves (there were no other sugar substitutes at that time) but with a warning label that read, "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals."

That warning label is no longer needed, says Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health. Further research has shown that male rats have a particular pH factor that predisposes them to bladder cancer. "A lot of things that cause harm in animals don't always cause harm in humans," she says.

Like saccharin, aspartame is another artificial sweetener that -- though thoroughly tested by the FDA and deemed safe for the general population -- has had its share of critics who blame the artificial sweetener for causing everything from brain tumors to chronic fatigue syndrome.

Not so, says Kava.

The only people for whom aspartame is a medical problem are those with the genetic condition known as phenylkenoturia (PKU), a disorder of amino acid metabolism. Those with PKU need to keep the levels of phenylalanine in the blood low to prevent mental retardation as well as neurological, behavioral, and dermatological problems. Since phenylalanine is one of the two amino acids in aspartame, people who suffer from PKU are advised not to use it.

Some people can be sensitive to artificial sweeteners and experience symptoms such as headaches and upset stomach, but otherwise, there is no credible information that aspartame -- or any other artificial sweetener -- causes brain tumors, or any other illness, says registered dietitian Wendy Vida, with HealthPLACE, the health and wellness division of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield in Pittsburgh.

Kava says that since artificial sweeteners are so much sweeter than sugar, a very small amount is needed to achieve the same sweetness one gets from sugar. "If used normally, the amounts you take in are so minuscule as to be of no concern at all."