Artificially sweetened products give some comfort to diabetics, low-carb dieters and those obsessed with tooth health who want to avoid the negative effects of sugar. While some varieties have been subject to negative press throughout their histories, those on the market have passed inspection by the U.S. Food and Drug Association nonetheless. Like any food -- natural or synthetic -- however, sugar substitutes may be unwelcome by individual immune systems. Although no scientific studies have confirmed allergies to sweeteners, anecdotal evidence suggests the possibility.
Products Containing Aspartame
Aspartame was approved for use by the FDA in 1981. Since that time, it has sweetened chewing gum, diet soda and candy, among other edibles. Aspartame is evaluated to be 160 to 250 times sweeter than table sugar, though its properties are lost if subject to baking. Following aspartame’s introduction, the FDA began to receive reports of ill effects from ingestion. Symptoms reported include headaches, hives, rashes, appearance of nodules on the skin and sporadic asthma. Though these conditions have been confirmed by individual doctors, aspartame has not been identified as an allergen in studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health.
Saccharin made its way onto kitchen tables courtesy of scientists at the Johns Hopkins University, who discovered it in 1878. In the early 1970s, studies on rodents raised questions about its potential as a carcinogen, leading to the FDA revoking its approval in 1972, followed by a short-lived ban on saccharin in 1977. Legislative intervention lifted the ban, and subsequent research invalidated the earlier findings. Saccharin is used primarily as a table-top sweetener and has 300 times the sweetness of table sugar. Its allergic potential lies in its antibiotic properties as a sulfonamide derivative, which have caused skin reactions, numbness, nausea, diarrhea and difficulty breathing among children. Those allergic to sulfa drugs should avoid saccharine, according to research published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Approved by the FDA in 1998, sucralose competes vigorously with aspartame as a food additive, finding its way into soft drinks, ice cream and baked goods. It is 600 times sweeter than table sugar and -- unlike aspartame and saccharin -- leaves no bitter aftertaste. Anecdotal evidence shows that some consumers of this sweetener suffer from allergic rhinitis, as well as digestive upset and anxiety. Yet the weight of evidence has been insufficient for organizations like the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology to designate sucralose -- or any FDA-approved sweetener -- as an allergen.
Examples of sugar alcohols include erythritol, isomalt, lactitol, sorbitol and xylitol. While these sugar alcohols occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, they require the addition of hydrogen molecules for use in effective quantity as sweeteners. Unlike the other substitutes, none of the sugar alcohols are as sweet as table sugar, and are used as additives for cured meats and boxed chocolates. Allergies to these substances are not widely reported, but intolerance -- inability to comfortably digest and absorb a food -- is more common. MayoClinic.com dieticians believe that a strong link exists between intolerance of fructose -- sugar found in fruit and honey -- and that of sorbitol, for example.
- American Diabetes Association: Food & Fitness; Sugar Alcohols
- American Academy of Family Physicians: Sucralose: What You Need to Know
- “New York Times”; Science Watch; Allergy to Aspartame; April 1986
- University of Guelph: Food Safety Network: Sweeteners
- “Chemical Heritage Magazine”; The Pursuit of Sweet: A History of Saccharin; Jesse Hicks
- American Academy of Pediatrics; “Inactive” Ingredients in Pharmaceutical Products: Update (Subject Review); Committee on Drugs; Feb. 1997
- “Epoch Times”; Ask the Doctor: Is Sucralose Safe?; Franklin McCoy, M.D.; May 2005
- MayoClinic.com; Fructose Intolerance: Which Foods Should I Avoid?; Katherine Zeratsky, R.D.; March 2011