You can find the trio of pastel packets in just about any eating establishment in the country. Artificial sweeteners are a $1.5-billion-a-year global industry, Kenneth Chang reports in The New York Times, and owing to America’s rising rates of obesity and diabetes the market isn’t likely to slow.
Each of the three main artificial sweeteners—saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low), aspartame (Equal) and sucralose (Splenda)—has its own following, and consumers’ choice is based on a number of considerations, safety being among them. Yet it’s hard to know what to make of the science on these artificial sweeteners, as Chang reports:
For any of the sweeteners, one can as easily find a study that offers reassuring analysis of safety as one that enumerates potential alarming effects. And it is possible that there could be long-term effects in humans that will become evident only after people have been consuming these sweeteners for decades.
What does “safe” mean, anyway?
As far as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is concerned, the three sweeteners may be considered “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). “Safe” means that there is reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists that a substance is not harmful under intended conditions of use, according to the Code of Federal Regulations.
One type of GRAS status, known as “self-affirmed” or “self-determined,” allows manufacturers themselves to determine the safety of their products and essentially self-approve them for the market. Another type of GRAS status, as described in a document issued by the International Food Additives Council, allows manufacturers to “notify FDA of their GRAS determination and provide evidence supporting their decision. After evaluating the notification, FDA is to respond to the manufacturer, conveying the agency’s disposition within 90 days. A response that does not identify a problem is not equivalent to an affirmation of GRAS status.” Yet manufacturers are under no obligation to wait for affirmation by the FDA in order to continue using the substance in food. In fact they are under no obligation to notify the FDA of the existence of the substance at all.
To be clear, I wasn’t able to find information on the GRAS status of saccharin, aspartame and sucralose. It may be that they are self-determined as GRAS or that the FDA has reviewed the evidence and has not questioned their GRAS status or that the FDA has actually affirmed the manufacturers’ GRAS determination for them.
Too easy on the manufacturers?
Earlier this year, as reported by FoodNavigator-USA.com, the American Heart Association (AHA) filed a complaint with the FDA regarding the GRAS process. “The current process,” said AHA president Dr. Gordon F. Tomaselli, “relinquishes too much of the Agency’s authority to food manufacturers and does not do enough to ensure the safety of substances that are added to foods,” allowing “food manufacturers to make their own GRAS determinations.” There is also “no mechanism for systematically ensuring the independence and sufficiency” of the expert evaluations companies rely on for GRAS determinations.
In a 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “Food Safety: FDA Should Strengthen its Oversight of Food Ingredients Determined to be Generally Recognized as Safe,” the GAO concluded that the FDA is “not systematically ensuring the continued safety of current GRAS substances” and has “largely not responded to concerns about GRAS substances” raised by advocacy groups.
The GRAS designation isn’t exactly a guarantee of safety. “Generally recognized as safe” in some circumstances is no more reassuring than “consume at your own risk.” Yet Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, says people have to take into account risks and uncertainty. “The world is almost never black and white, and we rarely operate with absolute certainty about anything,” he told the Times. On balance, though, artificial sweeteners “are much less bad” than sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages.
On the other hand, we don’t know the long-term safety of artificial sweeteners, and that’s something that shouldn’t be disregarded, either. “It’s interesting to keep in mind, if you smoke cigarettes, the lung cancer risk doesn’t go up for 30 years,” Dr. Willett said. “And that’s a really powerful carcinogen. A lot of things don’t show up for several decades.”
Absent of conclusive evidence, the Times’s Chang writes, “hearsay, mythology and whim guide the choices of many people” on which of the three artificial sweeteners to use. The consumer will have to make his or her own determination about how to recognize them as safe.
Photo Credit: Steve Snodgrass