Many of us over the age of 30 will remember the Sweet n Low craze that seemed to reach its height in the 1970s. Messages were all around us about the evils of sugar: it caused cavities, made us gain weight, wreaked havoc on blood glucose levels and was simply unhealthy. To the innocent, media-bombarded bystander this seemed a logical enough argument and prompted millions of North Americans to jump on the artificial sweetener bandwagon.
Sweet'n Low was the sugar substitute of the day and could be seen on restaurant tabletops everywhere; it tasted virtually the same as sugar with no known unhealthy downside. Thanks to modern science we thought we could finally have our cake and eat it too. Between 1903 and 2002, a handful of artificial sweeteners were introduced to the North American public, each with its own promise of low-calorie, guilt-free goodness.
Saccharin, also known as acid saccharin, sodium saccharin and calcium saccharin, led the way in the brave new world of artificial sweeteners and later became the primary ingredient in Sweet n Low. It was discovered in 1879 by Constantine Fahlberg, a chemistry research assistant at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and was used in indus-trial applications until 1903, when entrepreneur John F. Queeny and his newly-formed corporation Monsanto, began selling saccharin to food and beverage compa-nies, including Coca-Cola.
Promoted as a cheap, no-calorie sweetener, saccharin was unique in that it could not be metabolized by the human body and was excreted in the urine. It was quickly embraced in the World War I and II era by a public faced with sugar rationing and was vehemently endorsed by US President Theodore Roosevelt who, in 1911, stated "Anybody who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot."
Saccharin's heyday lasted until 1977 when Canadian research demonstrated that high doses of saccharin caused can-cer in rats. It was immediately banned in Canada, but then reintroduced later. The US Food and Drug Administration (PDA) deemed that more research was necessary and allowed it to stay on the market albeit with the frightening new warning label "Use of this product may be hazard"-the passing of new legislation.
In addition to its carcinogenic quality, saccharin belongs to a class of compounds known as sulfonamides which can cause allergic reactions in individuals who can not tolerate sulfa drugs. Reactions can include skin eruptions, breathing difficulties, headaches and diarrhea. Some infant formulas contain saccharin and can cause irritability and muscle dysfunction. Presently saccharin is sold in the US under the names Sweet n Low and Sugar Twin, and in Canada as Sweet n Low.
Cyclamate, also known as calcium cyclamate and sodium cyclamate, which
made its debut in 1950, was one of the first artificial sweeteners to be introduced to the public and was sold under the name Sucaryl. It was discovered accidentally in 1937 by Michael Sveda, a gradu-ate student at the University of Illinois while he was working with pharmaceutical compounds.
The patent for cyclamate was purchased by Dupont and later sold to Abbott Laboratories. It was promoted as a no-calorie, diabetic-friendly sweetener and was combined with saccharin in the original Sweet'n Low formula. The late 1960s brought disturbing evidence of bladder cancer and testicular abnor-malities in laboratory rats that were fed cyclamate and shortly thereafter the cyclamate bubble burst when the United States banned it in 1969.
Later research showed that cyclamate also caused DNA damage in the digestive organs of rats and mice. In 1978 Health and Welfare Canada declared a ‘general agreement' that cyclamates were not carcinogenic based on more sophisticated laboratory testing than was available in previous years. At present it is sold in Canada under the name Sugar Twin.
Like an unwelcome house guest, aspartame crept into the lives of the North American public in 1981 followed by strong assurances by the PDA that it had undergone detailed testing and close scrutiny. It is sold under the names Nutrasweet, Equal and Spoonfuls.
Aspartame was discovered accidentally in 1965 by James Schlatter, a scientist and employee of the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle, while working on new drug formulations. Despite disastrous safety studies done by G.D. Searle itself and later by the FDA, aspartame was approved in 1981 with the help of G.D. Searle's then CEO Donald Rumsfeld who was also the secretary of defence in the Reagan admin-istration at the time.
In 1985 G.D. Searle sold the rights to aspartame to Monsanto, the company that has also given us Agent Orange, recombinant bovine growth hormone and a wide variety of chemicals and genetically modified plants. When it first entered the market, aspartame was promoted as a no-calorie sweetener that could help with weight loss, dia-betes maintenance, lower the incidence of cavities and reduce the risks associated with obesity. It was even given an enthusi-astic endorsement by the American Dental Association.
Since its introduction to the public and its subsequent marketplace success as an artificial sweetener, independent research has shown that aspartame has nerotoxic and potentially deadly effects on the human body. The common health problems linked to aspartame include visual impairment, seizures, headaches, dizziness, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia-like muscle pain, depression, speech impairment, tinnitus and memory loss.
In 2000, European researchers demon-strated that one of the breakdown prod-ucts of aspartame, formaldehyde, accumulates in the brain and other organs of regular users leading to immune, nervous system and genetic damage which conse-quently may result in diagnoses of mul-tiple sclerosis, lupus, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, as well as birth defects in children of aspartame users.
In 2002 it was revealed that the original safety studies had demon-strated that another aspar-tame breakdown product, diketopiperazine, a known carcinogen, produced brain tumours in lab animals and was now showing up in brain tumour tissue removed from humans. Despite such frightening and damning evidence of aspartame's toxicity it is still approved for sale in both Canada and the US with Health Canada recently declaring it safe for use even by pregnant women!
In Canada and the US it is seen on ingredient lists as aspartame, Nutrasweet and Equal, with the US also marketing it as Spoonfuls. A combination of aspar-tame and acesulfame potassium has also been available since 1995 under the name Twinsweet. And, in 2002 the latest incarnation of aspartame, neotame was released from the laboratory after full FDA approval. Acesulfame potassium, also known as acesulfame-K, potassium acesulfame, ace-K and ACK, appeared on the North American scene in 1988 and has been sold under the names Sunett, Sweet One, Swiss Sweet and Sweet & Safe. It was discovered in 1967 by Karl Clauss a chemist working for the Hoechst Group of Germany.
Based on safety studies conducted by Hoechst itself, the PDA approved the limited use of acesulfame potassium in 1988 despite protest by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) that it had not been properly tested for safety. Like its precursors saccharin and cyclamate, it is promoted as a non-nutritive sweetener meaning that it is not metabolized by the body (therefore does not yield any calories) and is excreted in the urine. Over the following eight years the CSPI continued to protest the inadequate safety studies originally done by the Hoechst Group revealing that some of its data suggested that the additive might cause cancer in rates. In addition, other studies demonstrated that one of the breakdown products of acesulfame potassium, acetoacetamide, affected the thyroid gland in rats, rabbits, and dogs; rats in particular developed fast growing benign tumours when fed aceto-acetamide daily.
Although it is marketed as a sugar alternative, acesulfame potassium may have a similar effect to sugar in that it can stimulate insulin release and could be problematic for those with syndrome-x, hypoglycemia or diabetes. Despite the alarming evidence of questionable safety, the PDA approved acesulfame potassium for general use in 1998. In Canada it most commonly appears on ingredient lists as acesulfame-K and in the US it is sold under the names Sunett or Sweet One. With aspartame and acesulfame potassium's reputations somewhat tarnished, the stage was set for the introduction of sucralose.
Sold under the name Splenda, it was approved by Health Canada in 1991 and by the PDA in 1999. It was discovered accidentally by graduate student Shashikant Phadnis in 1976 at Queen Elizabeth College, University of London, while researching ways to use sucrose in chemical formulations. In 1980, the British sugar company Tate & Lyle collaborated with Johnson & Johnson to create an artifi-cial sweetener from chlorinated sucrose through the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary McNeil Specialty Products. Despite the FDA's conclusion, based on its own safety studies, that sucralose can cause lymphatic cell mutations in mice; it nevertheless gave full approval to the sweetener in 1999.
It is promoted by Johnson & Johnson as a calorie-free, carbohydrate-free sweetener that is safe for diabetics, children and preg-nant women as it does not break down in the body and passes through harmlessly. This claim however has been contradicted by both PDA and Japanese research, which has shown that up to 40 percent of consumed sucralose is absorbed by the body, with an undetermined amount concen-trating in the liver, kidneys and/or gastrointestinal tract.
Independent research on rats, mice and rabbits has demonstrated liver and kidney enlargement as well as structural irregu-larities of the colon. Other animal research has revealed that sucralose can cause up to 40 percent shrinkage of the thymus gland, a decreased red blood cell count, reduced fetal weight and growth rate, genetic damage and birth defects. Aside from any manufacturing guidelines. It is available in Canada and the US under the names sucralose and Splenda.
If the idea of playing Russian roulette with your health each time you consume an artificial sweetener does not appeal to you, then consider your alternatives. For those individuals needing a low calorie/no calorie sweetener nature provides us with several choices: the amazing no calorie, no carbohydrate stevia from the Paraguayan plant Stevia rebaudiana which actually helps improve pancreatic function; the low calorie, cavity-fighting xylitol which is found in many foods and produced in the human body; inulin, the root sugar that promotes healthy intestinal bacteria growth and acts as a slow-release energy source; and lohan (lo han kuo) the low calorie, low carbohydrate fruit sugar from southern China that does not cause extreme blood sugar fluctuations.
For those who are simply looking for a wholesome alternative to white sugar, consider using organic rapadura or sucanat sugar, unrefined sugar cane juices that retain their naturally occurring nutrients and a wonderful, full flavour; mineral-rich organic blackstrap molasses, which stim-ulates the release of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin; grade C organic maple syrup,
which contains vitamins and minerals; protein and B complex-rich raw, organic honey (please note that honey should not be given to chil-dren under one year of age); and organic grain syrups such as barley or rice which retain up to half of the original whole grain nutrients.
Despite the healthful, natural options that are available to us, they can never be patented. Thus, the quest to create yet another patentable, artificial sweetener that will bring huge profits to one of the drug/chemical companies from the ignorance and fear of a sugar-phobic public, will no doubt continue. Trying to outwit Mother Nature however can be a dangerous game, and when it comes to artificial sweeteners, as the old saying goes, you pay your money and you take your chances.
Joan Ullyett BA, RHN is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist. She has worked in the field of natural medicine for 7 years as a consultant, writer and health educator. Joan is dedicated to helping people understand how their bodies function from a holistic perspective and through this knowledge, empower them to take control of their health. To consult online with Joan please visit www.thehealthnerd.com