Every few decades there is a shift in diet culture. Currently, we are experiencing the war on sugar as consumers become increasingly aware of the growing overconsumption of sugar and the risks associated with it. As a result, high-intensity sweeteners are now a common alternative to ordinary sugar that make up little to no calories when added to food or drink, creating desirability for those attempting a calorie deficit. These sweeteners are frequently used in beverages or foods marketed as “diet” or “sugar-free.” Research from 2019 shows a whopping two-thirds of Americans were attempting to limit their sugar intake. In efforts to keep up with these trends, the food industry had to begin adjusting the contents of their products while adhering to the Food and Drug Administration’s (“FDA”) regulations.
Among the high-intensity sweeteners on the market are saccharin and aspartame. Both are chemical formulas used as food additives to produce an intensely sweet flavor without the calories of sugar; notably, aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Both saccharin and aspartame are currently approved and regulated by the FDA. High-intensity sweeteners are regulated as a food additive, unless its use is generally recognized as safe (such as stevia leaf). Before a food additive can be used in food and marketed as such, it must undergo premarket review and obtain approval by the FDA. During the premarket review of the current high-intensity sweeteners permitted for use, the FDA established an acceptable daily intake level (“ADI”) for each of the sweeteners. The FDA has included a chart on its website showing the number of tabletop sweetener packets a 132 pound individual would need to consume to reach the ADI: 75 packets of aspartame and 45 packets of saccharin. The FDA also claims that even for consumers whose daily consumption of a sweetener is high, it generally does not present safety concerns if it is still less than the ADI.
Yet, the question remains for consumers conscious about their health but with a persistent sweet tooth: should I be choosing products with sugar or artificial sweetener? This complex question is best answered by comparing Diet Coca-Cola (“Diet Coke”) to regular Coca-Cola (“Coke”). Diet Coke contains artificial high-intensity sweeteners, including aspartame, while regular Coke contains traditional sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup. However, high consumption of both Diet Coke and regular Coke may be linked to a higher risk of heart disease and other health problems. The question is not “which version of sweetener is better for you,” but “which version of sweetener is less bad for you.” A can of Coke contains 39g of sugar, which amounts to about 7 teaspoons of sugar. The FDA suggests a Daily Value of 50 grams per day for added sugars based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet. Thus, drinking a Coke will make up 78% of one’s suggested daily added sugar intake. Contrary to what many believe, Diet Coke (although containing 0g of sugar) may still present similar health issues as regular coke, such as a spike in blood sugar caused by its artificial sweeteners. Spikes in blood sugar have been linked to heart problems, type-2 diabetes, weight gain and the other various health problems commonly associated with traditional sugar intake.
Overall, the convoluted truth is that western diet trends heavily influence how products are presented in the media and then marketed to the public. Evidently, there is a surprising lack of concrete scientific evidence to heavily sway individuals in one direction or another in terms of choosing high-intensity sweeteners over classic sugar. Remarkably, the one consensus is that neither of the two are particularly “good” for health as both are addictive and stimulate the brain in a similar fashion. In sum, moderation is key as consuming excess amounts of either sugar or artificial sweeteners can be cause for concern. It is important not to blindly follow the intentional marketing of “diet” or “zero sugar” products without doing further research on what exactly is replacing that sweet flavor. But, to avoid the issue altogether, perhaps opt for a sparkling water sweetened naturally with fruits instead of deciding between a diet or regular Coke.