Ask the Doctors: Artificial sweeteners should be occasional part of diet

Dear Doctor: What are the possible health risks from artificial sweeteners? What are they, and how do we know if they’re safe?

Dear Reader: It’s been well more than a century since a scientist at Johns Hopkins University who was fiddling around with the byproducts of coal tar (that’s right, coal tar) accidentally discovered saccharine.

It caused a sensation, and a decade later, saccharine, which scientists estimate to be between 200 and 700 times sweeter than table sugar, could be found in many sodas and some canned foods.

Since then, as you noted, a host of new artificial sweeteners have hit the market. Some, like cyclamates, which were linked to bladder cancer in lab rats, were subsequently withdrawn. Others, despite undergoing rigorous study before getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration, continue to be the focus of skepticism and scrutiny.

At this time, six artificial sweeteners — also known as “non-nutritive” and “high-intensity” sweeteners — have received FDA approval. These are saccharine, sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, neotame and advantame. Each is at least several hundred times sweeter than sugar. Advantame is said to be 20,000 times sweeter than sugar. It, along with all the other FDA-approved artificial sweeteners except saccharine and aspartame, is heat-stable.

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