Sweet tooth

Artificial sweeteners may be safe, but only in moderate amounts

by Romy Cheuk

Artificial sweeteners allow people to keep their sugar and energy intakes down, yet still enjoy the sweet taste of food and beverages.

Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes. They provide no energy but are nutritive. These sweeteners can be found in soft drinks, chewing gum, vitamins and medicines.

According to Dr. Chen Zhen-yu of the Department of Food Science at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, saccharin and aspartame are the two most common types of artificial sweeteners we use in daily life.

He said, “Saccharin is present in the body with no chemical compounds. It passes through the digestive system unchanged.

“In contrast, the body does digest aspartame, receiving tiny quantities of nutrients and other compounds.”

Dr. Chen added, “Saccharin is the oldest artificial sweetener but aspartame dominates the world’s market with 75 percents of the sales for artificial sweeteners.”

According to Dr. Chen, saccharin has been used for more than 100 years while aspartame has been used less than 30 years.

Some consumers have challenged the safety of artificial sweeteners. Considering that all compounds are toxic at some dose, there it is little surprise that large doses of artificial sweeteners have toxic effects. Nevertheless, it is safe for humans to take normal amounts.

The acceptable daily intake for aspartame is 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.

Said Dr. Chen: “This assumes that you will not take 40 packs of artificial sweeteners a day and usually you will not consume that much.”

Aspartame is a simple chemical compound formed by two amino acids. Under certain circumstances, such as under high temperature, the structure will become unstable. The compound then breaks down into the amino acids.

In certain combinations, these elements will have adverse effects. For example, human systemic effects may include coughing and headaches.

The main toxic effect is exerted upon the nervous system, particularly the optic nerve. Other side-effects may include seizures, depression, brain damage and memory loss.

For saccharin, Dr. Chen said that experiments with rats suggested large doses of saccharin could increase the risk of bladder cancer.

Dr. Chen said, “Products containing saccharin are required to carry a warning label. In Canada and the United States, saccharin is banned except for use as a tabletop sweetener sold in pharmacies.”

Dr. Chen said that some people even believe that diet has a major influence on criminal behaviour.

Children who cannot sit still at school are also considered to be suffering from the side-effects of artificial sweeteners. Their diets may contain large amounts of food additives and artificial sweeteners that affect the function of the brain.

Although plenty of cases show that substances from the diet can have subtle effects on human behaviour, and that brain chemicals are derived from the diet, there is no evidence that abnormal behaviour such as criminality and hyperactivity can be traced to diet, according to Dr. Chen.

In fact, apart from artificial sweeteners, there are other alternatives of sugar like sugar alcohols.

Sugar alcohols yield no energy and are referred to as nutritive sweeteners. They are not sugar substitutes but sugar relatives.

Miss Winifred Sin, 22, of Sha Tin took aspartame three years ago when she was on a diet. “I didn’t find any side-effect,” said Miss Sin.

“However, the food was not sweet at all even when I used much of it in cooking.”

Dr. Chen explained, “This kind of sweetener is only for cold products. At high temperature, it destroys and loses sweetness.”

Many people eat and drink products sweetened with artificial sweeteners to help them maintain or lose weight. However, it is hard to say whether artificial sweeteners can really help in weight control.

Nevertheless, people should only use the sweeteners in moderation and only as part of a well-balanced nutritious diet, according to Dr. Chen.

The dietary principles of both moderation and variety are useful in diluting the possible risks associated with any food.

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