March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
The FDA states that sugar substitutes, or high-intensity sweeteners, including acesulfame-K, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, advantame and sucralose are safe to eat in the amounts that people typically consume. But just how much is acceptable and safe for human consumption?
Understanding the Acceptable Daily Intake for Sugar Substitutes
Regulatory agencies set Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) levels for each artificial sweetener. The ADI is the maximum amount of a food additive that can be safely consumed on a daily basis over a person's lifetime without any adverse effects. Although the number of diet soft drinks and other "sugar free" products we devour may seem high, the U.S. intake of sugar substitutes is actually well below the ADI even for the heaviest users, namely dieters, adults, children with diabetes and women of child-bearing age.
To get an idea of how much sugar substitutes can be consumed without adverse effects, consider the following examples: A 150-pound adult can safely consume 2.4 cans of 12-ounce soda or 8.6 packets of sweetener containing saccharin daily. Similarly, that same adult can safely consume 17 cans of 12-ounce soda or 97.4 packets of artificial sweetener containing aspartame daily and not be adversely affected. Meanwhile, the ADI for saccharin for a 50-pound child is .8 of a 12-ounce can of soda daily and 2.8 packets of sweetener, or 5.6 cans of soda and 32.4 packets of artificial sweetener containing aspartame.
Foods may naturally contain the same "chemicals" as a sugar substitute, and sometimes in greater quantities than the artificial sweetener itself. For example: A serving of non-fat milk provides almost six to nine times more phenylalanine and 13 times more aspartic acid than the same amount of beverage sweetened with aspartame. A serving of tomato juice, however, provides almost four to six times more methanol than the same amount of beverage sweetened with aspartame.
Unfortunately, it's hard to know exactly how much of sugar substitutes Americans consume. The intake of such substitutes in the United States has only been measured for aspartame and only from 1984 to 1992. More recent studies in various other countries show estimated intake values for aspartame, acesulfame-K, saccharin and sucralose generally below their country's established ADIs. The bottom line is that there is a fair amount of evidence to confirm the safety of sweeteners at levels consumed within the Acceptable Daily Intake levels.