FDA says that artificial sweeteners are safe

Q&A

February 18, 2005|By Judy Foreman | Judy Foreman,Special to the Sun

Are artificial sweeteners safe?

By and large, yes. The major sweeteners are food additives that have been deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration. But not everyone agrees with the FDA, and not all sweeteners are the same, so we'll take them one by one.

There are two types of sweeteners, caloric and noncaloric, said Karen Chalmers, a diabetes specialist at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. The caloric ones, which include sorbitol, mannitol, maltilol, xylitol and others, have calories, like sugar, but aren't as fattening because the body doesn't absorb them as well as it does sugar.

The noncaloric sweeteners are saccharin, aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame-K.

Sorbitol (found in gum and ice cream), like other sugar alcohols, is rated as safe in the January 2005 Consumer Reports on Health, though the sweeteners can cause bloating, stomach cramps, gas and diarrhea.

Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, said he has "a bit of concern" about sorbitol because prunes, which contain sorbitol, were linked to a higher risk of colon cancer in one study.

Acesulfame-K (found in Sweet One) may also pose little risk, but it has not been studied enough, according to both Consumer Reports and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. The American Dietetic Association and the American Diabetes Association say it is safe.

Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet) is safe except for people with PKU, or phenylketonuria. Although Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said it should be tested further, Consumer Reports noted that 500 studies have shown no convincing evidence of harm in normal people.

Saccharin (Sweet'N Low) is more controversial. Chalmers says it is safe. Willett says that, although high intakes increased bladder cancer in rats, no such relationship was found in large human studies. Jacobson says flatly that saccharin "should not be on the market."

Sucralose (Splenda) gets the best marks. Both Consumer Reports and the Center for Science in the Public Interest say there are currently no safety concerns.

Another sweetener, Stevia, is not an approved food additive (it's considered a dietary supplement) and too little is known about it to assess its safety. For the record, sugar is safe, too, in small doses. It's only in excess that it puts pounds on.

Why do some people feel cold all the time?

The Japanese have a name for the syndrome of feeling cold a lot: hiesho. Nobody really knows why it happens, though the U.S. Army has been trying to figure it out for years, according to exercise physiologist John Castellani of the Army's Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass.

In general, women seem to feel cold more than men, he noted, and older people often feel colder than young ones in the same environment. Some people with less body fat also feel cold a lot, but then again, so do some obese people.

In some people, a slightly underactive thyroid gland may be the culprit, said Lisa Leon, a research physiologist at the Natick lab.

"There is no simple physiological indicator" of who will feel cold and who won't, said Matthew Kluger, a fever expert and vice president for research at the Medical College of Georgia.

Researchers have tried to predict who will do well in what kind of environment -- hot or cold -- and have found no clear indicators, such as the rate of sweating or the ability of the blood vessels to constrict. The best predictor, he said, turns out to be just asking people whether they do better in hot environments or cold.

What you can count on, Kluger said, is that, because of considerable individual variation, in any relationship, one person will tend to feel colder than the other, triggering those familiar thermostat wars.

Do you have a medical question? You can submit questions via e-mail to foreman@baltsun. com.

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