Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Artificial Sweeteners: Fact and Fiction

Probably one of the most heavily studied artificial "foods" is the sweetener aspartame. Accidentally discovered by a scientist in the 1960s, aspartame obtained US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in the early 1980s and turned the food and beverage industry inside out. It quickly showed up in everything from soft drinks to ice cream and even some over-the-counter medications. However, many people worry about its safety largely because of an unsubstantiated letter posted on the Internet in 1995. The letter said that aspartame was a cause of serious diseases, in particular multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus and Alzheimer's disease. The concerns created by the letter triggered even more research studies and these, along with the dozens that came before, reconfirmed aspartame's safety. Despite the studies, concerns about aspartame's safety abound. I, for one, get a headache after consuming more than one can of diet soda. Meanwhile, even though the body breaks down aspartame into some scary-sounding substances -- aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol -- these exist naturally and in significant quantities in milk and tomato juice, as well as being a natural part of foods, from meats and fish to fruits and vegetables. To get to the bottom line, I called nutrition educator and past president of the Colorado Dietetic Association, Liz Marr, MS, RD, who studies the research on sweeteners for some major food manufacturers. Marr first established that there is one group of people who must not consume aspartame -- those who have the genetic disease phenylketonuria (PKU). Reason: They cannot metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine. (Foods containing aspartame carry this warning label.) For everyone else, Marr says, there is nothing in the research that links aspartame to health risks. Its use actually can contribute to maintaining dietary goals in the context of a healthy diet. Like it or not, she says, people want sweets and the availability of artificial sweeteners makes it possible to enjoy goodies without gaining weight. For those with diabetes, artificial sweeteners have opened up the world of desserts. Even so, Marr advises selectivity when it comes to sweets and sweeteners -- moderation being her watchword. This is especially salient in light of recent research about sugar providing cues to the brain regarding calories consumed -- whereas artificial sweeteners do not act in the same way. So, since Dr. Marr likes an occasional cookie, she bakes them herself and maximizes their taste with high-grade ingredients including, yes, sugar.Aspartame does indeed seem to be safe. But, since it provides no nutritional value and most of the products in which it is used can even harm your health in other ways (soft drinks can leach calcium from your bones and diet products do not satisfy sweet cravings), it is better to limit your consumption of aspartame and all sweeteners. The best beverage: Water. Or, if you are a bubble person, try one of the many flavored seltzers available.

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