The search for ways to get the sweet taste of sugar without the calories brought about low-calorie sugar substitutes. Many artificial sweeteners are molecules that fit into the tongue's sweet receptors. Because some bind more tightly to the tongue than natural sugars, sugar substitutes can send stronger "sweet" messages to the brain and therefore taste many times sweeter than sucrose.
However, increasing evidence suggests that many artificial sweeteners have adverse health effects. Popular artificial sweeteners include:
- Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal, Spoonful and Equal-Measure): Aspartame is made through a combination of amino acids and methanol. It does have calories, but since it is 200 times sweeter than sugar, you only have to use a small amount. However, Aspartame has been linked to brain damage, headaches, dizziness and nausea. Eating foods with Aspartame affects the levels of dopamine in the brain (a chemical that allows the movement of information from one neuron across the gap between it and the adjacent neuron). At 90 degrees Fahrenheit, a part of aspartame decomposes into formaldehyde, which kills cells and tissues. However, aspartame continues to receive approval by the FDA.
- Saccharin (Sweet'N Low, Sweet Twin and Necta Sweet): Discovered in 1879, saccharin is a petroleum-based compound that is 300 times sweeter than sugar. It gained popularity during the sugar shortages of the two World Wars. In the 1970s, a series of lab tests indicated that saccharin was directly linked to bladder cancer in rats, which led to its ban in Canada. However, because further tests yielded inconclusive evidence, saccharin continues to be used throughout the United States. In 2000, regulations requiring that the health risks of saccharin be printed on food labels was reversed.
- Sucralose (Splenda): Sucralose is a sucrose molecule treated with chlorine, so that it is not easily digestible. However, it can trigger migraine headaches in some people and contribute to the shrinking of the thymus gland (an organ that helps the immune system). According to the Medical Letter on Drugs & Therapeutics, a nonprofit organization: "Its long-term safety is unknown."
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