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Artificial Sweeteners: Good Tools, in Moderation


You hear a lot of things about artificial sweeteners, or non-nutritive sweeteners, as they’re also called. Are they safe? Do they cause serious diseases? Myths and rumors about them are widespread, especially on the Internet. We spoke with Virginia Bennett, a registered dietitian at Allina, to find out which sweeteners are worth looking into, which we should avoid and what the role of artificial sweeteners is in the food plan of a person with diabetes.

“People with diabetes should feel free to use some of the artificial sweeteners—in moderation,” explains Bennett. “The Food and Drug Administration has assigned accepted daily intake values to them, so people have guidelines about how much to consume without causing adverse physiologic effect. Use them to enhance a well-balanced diet,” she recommends.

Sweeteners worth considering
Stevia is an herb from the chrysanthemum family. More and more Americans are using it. It’s been used in Japan for about 30 years, and it initially became popular in this country in California. Buy as leaves or granular white powder. Dissolve powder in water and use the drops as a liquid sweetener. A few drops provide the sweetness of an entire cup of sugar. If you use too much, it tastes like licorice. “A nice thing about stevia is that you can bake and cook with it,” says Bennett. You’re likely to find stevia in selective grocery stores and health food stores.

Sucralose, known as Splenda on the market, is one of the most popular sweeteners in this country. It’s granulated like sugar, and you measure it the same way you measure sugar. Splenda can also be used for baking and cooking. “You can make a really nice lemonade with Splenda,” Bennett says. (See the recipe at the end of this article.)

Aspartame, which is found in NutraSweet, works fairly well in diet soft drinks, but it loses its sweetness when heated. If you’ve wondered whether diet soft drinks are an acceptable part of a healthy food plan, remember the word “moderation.” “Diet pops can help people with diabetes follow a healthy eating plan to control blood sugar,” explains Bennett. “You should limit them to one or two servings per day, and pregnant women should have no more than one serving per day. And you have to remember to count the carbs. A 12-ounce can of pop equals three carb choices. Of course, water is a better substitute, but pop in moderation is okay.”

Debunking an “urban legend,” other myths
There’s one thing Bennett wants you to know for sure: there’s no evidence that aspartame causes multiple sclerosis (MS). “That’s an ‘urban legend’ that’s been spread on the Internet,” she says. “There’s no evidence that it causes MS, brain tumors, lupus or any other illness mentioned in the rumors. One tiny study showed that migraines may get worse if you consume large amounts of aspartame, but that’s about it.”

Another thing people are often confused about is fructose, which is the sugar derived from fruit. You need to count fructose as a carbohydrate. “Just because it’s from fruit doesn’t mean it’s not sugar,” says Bennett.

“And everyone should also remember that people with diabetes can actually eat sugar, in moderation. They just have to count it as a carbohydrate when they do their carb counting.”

A lot of people like to use honey as a sweetener. There’s nothing wrong with honey itself, but if you do use it, make sure it’s pasteurized. Unpasteurized honey can cause botulism, and it’s especially dangerous for pregnant women. 

Avoid saccharine
Generally, saccharine is not recommended. In 1976, it was found to cause cancer in rats. With so many other sweeteners on the market, there’s no sense taking a risk, even a very small one, with saccharine. Sweet ‘n Low and Sugar Twin are made from saccharine.

A final word about sweeteners
“Use artificial sweeteners to help you get variety in your diet,” says Bennett. “And let your healthcare provider know which ones you’re using, to make sure you know what the side effects are.”

Virginia Bennett’s Lemonade
Juice of ½ lemon
4 teaspoons Splenda
one cup of water

Virginia Bennett, Registered Dietitian, Allina Hospitals and Clinics
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