When EWG was developing Food Scores – our new food database that rates more than 80,000 products on nutrition, ingredient concerns and processing concerns – one of the many thorny questions that we had to confront was: How should low-calorie sweeteners score? This is far from a simple question, but it is an important one, given that these sweeteners are in products as varied as diet sodas, ice cream, yogurt, snack bars, salad dressings, instant oatmeal and bagels.
Notably, the Institute of Medicine does not encourage consumption of products with artificial sweeteners nor consider them appropriate to meet the nutritional recommendations of the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans (IOM 2007). There is no scientific consensus on whether “diet” products with low-calorie sweeteners help with long-term weight loss. And there is ongoing debate over the safety of some sweeteners and on whether low-calorie sweeteners may condition the palate to make people crave more sweet foods or have other undesirable health effects.
Meanwhile, there is very clear data showing that eating a lot of sugar can be harmful, and the rising rates of diabetes and obesity are serious public health problems. Experts may disagree on exactly how much sugar is too much, but there is really no question that many Americans consume more of it than is good for them. Americans take in average of 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, according to recent government estimates (NCI 2010; USDA and DHHS 2010).
So should consumers choose low-calorie sweeteners or should they opt for sugar? The answer is that it is probably best to avoid eating too much of either one. The downsides of eating sugar are clear, and there are too many questions about the long-term consequences of consuming low-calorie sweeteners for EWG to recommend them without reservation.
Consumers will notice that diet sodas tend to score better than full sugar sodas in EWG’s Food Scores database. This is because there is clear evidence showing that drinking a lot of sugary drinks is bad for your health, and the jury is still out when it comes to the potential benefits and drawbacks of low-calorie sweeteners.
Some low-calorie sweeteners raise more concerns than others, however, and these differences are reflected in those products’ scores.
Here is EWG’s summary of the state of the evidence on some key questions about sweeteners:
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