Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe? How Do we Know?

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, 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.


Related Stories:

Aspartame’s Sickeningly Sweet Controversy

Scary Reasons to Quit Soft Drinks

Sugar Rush: Will You Cut Your Sugar Consumption?

Photo Credit: Steve Snodgrass


Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

Mary Mattarelli
Mary Mattarelli5 years ago

Dont use it,

Mit Wes
Mit Wes5 years ago

You forgot this, Joe !

I guess it's only a matter of time that we blame autism on this too !

Joseph Zeke
Joseph Zarkowski5 years ago

For a more information on this subject you can look up these documentaries titled.

Nutrition and Behavior/Aspartame.

Sweet Misery.

Sweet Remedy.

They can be found on A free down load and viewing site.
All say pretty much the same thing. In short.
Artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame and the others, once in the body go though a chemical change, ending up in the body, in organs such as the liver, kidneys, and brain, as formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is an extreme poison , The body dose not expel it, rather it builds up in the organs of the body, and in time will gather in enough quantity to kill you.

Donald Rumsfeld was instrumental in getting the substance approved,as he was on the borad of the company that invented Aspartame, with the FDA.Records show that he and his company altered the scientific information so that this material could be sold in the market place.Like everything in this country never mind peoples health and safety. Get the money.

Sugar in it's molecular structure has 19 atoms that make up one molecule of sugar. Artificial sweeteners are altered molecules , the body dose not recognize them as sugar, and their for dose not absorb them like a sugar. So, the body chemically alters them again and the end result is formaldehyde.

Myself. Some years ago i had a slight medical problem. In short. I modified my diet and have never lived better.I eat only whole foods, No junk. No pop, no candy, no processed foods,no fast foods.If y

Kathleen Cazander

Thanks for the informative article.

Mit Wes
Mit Wes5 years ago

Aspartame is actually recommend for weight loss by the FAA, Magyar. But we don't stoop to scare tactics like the ones we accuse cooporations of around here, do we? (page 18 (20 of the document))

Magyar Girl
Past Member 5 years ago

Well said Leah!

Magyar Girl
Past Member 5 years ago

I guess the people that feel that NutraSweet is healthy don't know about it's ability to cause seizures in those who don't even have epilepsy. It's even a disqualification for piloting. It also causes massive migraines.

Cheryl B.
Cheryl B5 years ago


Michael O.
Michael O5 years ago

I'll stick to my diet drinks, thank you very much. I have a family history of diabetes, and the KNOWN risks of excess sugar consumption (diabetes, obesity, tooth decay, gingivitis, etc) in my case take precedence over any POTENTIAL risks associated with the consumption of artificial sweeteners.

If sugar was a new food item and had to go through FDA testing like other new supplements, it would never be approved for human consumption.