What are Artificial Sweeteners, do they work, and are they safe?
Artificial sweeteners are actually chemical substitutes or naturally occurring substitutes for sugar. They are used to sweeten both foods and drinks, and have very few calories, if any. They are often used as an adjunct in weight control, also to aid in limiting the amount of decay, and even to control blood sugar for folks who may have diabetes.
There are many names for sugar (sucrose) substitutes or artificial sweeteners. Some of the better known ones are Splenda, Sweet N Low, Saccharin, Equal, and NutraSweet, as well as some of the naturally occurring alcohol sweeteners which is extracted from plants, fruits, vegetables and bark. There are a few others but this covers most of the better known ones.
Almost all of the better known artificial sweeteners are considered safe, with the one exception. Anyone who has the disease of phenylketonuria, also known as PKU, should avoid Aspartame artificial sweeteners such as NutraSweet and Equal. The Mayo Clinic describes PKU as “a rare inherited disorder that causes an amino acid called phenlyalanine to build up in your body. PKU is caused by a defect in the gene that helps create the enzyme needed to break down phenylalanine. Without the enzyme necessary to process phenylalanine, a dangerous buildup can develop when a person with PKU eats foods that are high in protein. This can eventually lead to serious health problems.” These substances are often found in soft drinks and used as sweeteners. Other than that, sweeteners are considered safe.
Xylitol, the only alcohol artificial sweetener mentioned above, is very likely an aid in reducing tooth decay. Xylitol is the natural ingredient in fruits and vegetables which creates the sweet flavor. Sorbitol is another naturally occurring alcohol substance which creates a sweet flavor. Both of these alcohols are used in candy and sugarless gums which help lessen the amount of tooth decay. Alcohol sweeteners are not chemically changed by the bacteria in the mouth to produce acid like the other “sugars.” This fact alone reduces tooth decay, and it also is said to aid in the remineralization process of the tooth which represents a reversal of the demineralization of the tooth. Xylitol is also considered safe for diabetics, but it must be remembered that Xylitol is harmful to dogs and could be fatal. Another naturally occurring alcohol sweetener, and becoming very popular, is Truvia. It has zero calories and comes from sweetener found in fruits and melons. The alcholol is call erythrotol and also may be found in the stevia leaf.
Tooth decay requires an acidic environment, or a pH below 7, somewhere near 5. Seven is considered neutral. By chewing gum with xylitol as a sweetener, the pH very quickly returns to neutral which makes the saliva no longer acidic, therefore reducing decay. Fluoride is still considered the best decay-fighter. Xylitol has about 67 % of the calories of normal sugar and is not toxic to humans, even though excessive overuse may cause diarrhea.
Artificial sugars do not raise blood sugar as does sucrose. This is very important for diabetics to know. There will be no spiking of sugar in the blood stream by using an artificial sweetener, but any carbohydrates ingested may do so. It is always wise to check your blood sugar so that you know positively how this may affect you, if at all.
About 50 % of the American public utilize these substitutes every day. Most of us consume ten plus teaspoons of sugar per day. If you do eat that much sugar, you should be even more vigilant with fluoride use and your oral hygiene and also maintain the proper intake of nutritious food. Ten teaspoons per day will definitely result in weight-gain and an elevation of tooth decay unless very meticulous oral hygiene is maintained.
The Saccharin scare occurred in the 1970’s which resulted from the discovery that saccharin caused bladder cancer in lab mice. This resulted in a warning label which was later removed when it became known that this absolutely did not occur in humans.
In summary, artificial sweeteners are helpful in controlling blood sugar in diabetics, and for controlling weight-gain by reducing the high intake of calories found in sugar (sucrose). Plus there is the additional benefit of helping to remineralize enamel and a reduction of tooth decay.
Life Member of American Dental Association, Emeritus Fellow of Academy of General Dentistry, American Association of Implant Dentists