Artificial sweeteners – what are they, are there risks and what are the possible benefits?

Dear Dr. Mo: What exactly are the artificial sweeteners and what are their pros and cons? 

Jellies often contain artificial sweeteners

Jellies often contain artificial sweeteners

Dear reader: Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes, usually synthetic , but may also come from naturally occurring substances like herbs or sugar itself (like sucralose, which is derived from sugar).

These sweeteners are many times sweeter than table sugar and this is why they are intense sweeteners.

Artificial sweeteners provide the needed sweet taste while adding virtually zero calories to our diet. Because they are so strong, only a fraction is needed to create the required sweet taste – far less than the amount of sugar you would otherwise use. Here I am talking about Aspartame, Neotame, Sucralose, Saccharine, Cyclamate and Acesulfam Potassium.

Processed foods contain artificial sweeteners and these foods are all around us – canned foods, soft drinks, pastry, dairy products, jams, jellies, candy, biscuits, gums etc.


Containing zero calories as opposed to sugar (each gram of sugar packs 4 calories – a table spoon is about 4 grams so go figure), artificial sweeteners may be helpful in weight control. However, I should caution you that some research has suggested that artificial sweeteners may be associated with increased weight for reasons not yet known or understood.

Artificial sweeteners are no magic bullet for weight loss and weight control.

Artificial sweeteners do not cause tooth decay and cavities and that’s another up side.

Artificial sweeteners generally do not elevate blood sugar because they are not carbohydrates. This makes them a good alternative for sugar if you have diabetes but speak to your doctor about it as there are different ways in labelling sugar substitutes.

There are also sweeteners called sugar alcohols (sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, xylitol etc.) and these are not true artificial sweeteners as they can occur naturally in some fruits and vegetables, they are often less sweet than sugar (or as sweet) and they do provide small amounts of calories which may affect blood sugar levels and large amounts may cause digestive problems like cramps, bloating, gas and diarrhea. These are used in tooth pastes, mouth wash, chewing gums, chocolate, candy etc. replacing sugar usually in equal amounts. Sugar alcohols are sometimes combined with artificial sweeteners to enhance sweetness and provide bulk and texture to food, which artificial sweeteners do not. Read the food labels to see if this is the case – there may be hidden calories in your “sugar-free” drink or snack.


Some older studies have linked artificial sweeteners to cancer (saccharin caused bladder cancer in lab rats) but there’s no sound scientific evidence that any of the usually approved artificial sweeteners cause cancer or any other serious health problems. Artificial sweeteners in moderate quantities are generally safe, even for pregnant women to consume; the only exception for pregnant women are Saccharin and Cyclamate. A few other exceptions include people with metabolic disease called Phenylketonuria (PKU), people on low potassium diets and people on antibiotic treatment with antibiotics that contain sulfa.

All these groups of people should speak with their doctor before using artificial sweeteners to see which are safe for them to use – not all are.

Used in moderation, artificial sweeteners can be part of your healthy diet.

Yours in health,

Dr. Mo

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