WASHINGTON - Americans have a collective sweet tooth, and many turn to artificial sweeteners for their daily fix.
The Food and Drug Administration has certified that all the sweeteners currently on the market are safe for use. They range from saccharine, which was discovered by accident in a laboratory in the late 1800s, to stevia, the newest product on the shelves.
"They have all been approved by the FDA and they have been tested for carcinogenesis and toxicity and reproduction outcomes and they have been deemed safe," says Allison Sylvetsky, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health who also teaches at the George Washington School of Public Health and Health Services.
Sylvetsky says there are ongoing studies on the affect these sweeteners can have on metabolism and diet choices.
The newer products on the market, such as stevia and sucrolose, most commonly sold as Splenda, claim to be all natural. However, Sylvetsky says these are marketing claims by the food industry.
"There is nothing to suggest that the newer ones are any better or worse than the older ones," she says.
According to Sylvetsky, stevia comes from a plant which is processed, and sucrolose is chemically modified sugar.
"All of these sweeteners are in some way -- some more than others -- synthetically produced," Sylvetsky says.
"And when you see them in the packet form on the table top, they are usually combined with other bulking agents and fillers."
The main benefit to artificial sweeteners, says Sylvetsky, is they enable consumers to avoid sugar. However, if people really want to improve their diet, they should add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat proteins, she says. They should also cut their intake of processed foods including sodas, both sugar- laden and diet.
This message has long been supported by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group that focuses on nutrition and food safety.
"Ideally, we wouldn't be consuming much of either sugar or artificial sweeteners," says Michael Jacobson, the executive director of CSPI.
The advocacy organization has been warning for years about the need for more study into the dangers of artificial sweeteners, especially saccharine (Sweet'N Low and SugarTwin), aspartame (Equal and NutraSweet) and acesulfame potassium (Sunett and Sweet One).
Still, Jacobson admits if he had to chose between a regular soda and a diet soda, he would opt for the diet. But he says he would do it very reluctantly, stressing water and seltzer are a far better choice.
The Agriculture Department says the average person consumes about 100 pounds of added sugars and other high-calorie sweeteners each year. That translates into roughly 22 teaspoons of sugar per day, slightly more than the amount in two 12- ounce cans of soda.
The American Heart Association says the daily limit should be 6 teaspoons of added sugar for women, and 9 teaspoons for men.
The Mayo Clinic has a list of all major sweeteners available on its website.
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