Chocolates, cakes, soft drinks, yes we all love them and such preference for sweets generally remains with us throughout our lives. But as we all know too much of anything is bad and too much of sugar intake can lead to many problems such as dental problems, weight gain, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

So, a general guideline to avoid all of the above listed ailments is to reduce the intake of sugar. If that is too much to ask, then there is the option of sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners. An artificial sweetener is a synthetic substitute for natural sugar but may be derived from naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar itself.

So, how do artificial sweeteners help the cause? Basically, artificial sweeteners are non-nutritive sweeteners i.e. they are a lot many times sweeter than the natural sugar that we consume, typically exceed the sweetness of sucrose by a factor of 30 to 13,000 times. So, they can provide the same sweet effect as that of natural sugar with just a fraction of quantity. This way, they add virtually just a fraction of calories to the normal diet as compared to regular sugar. There are some others that add "zero calories" to our diet. This is because our body can't metabolize them. They simply pass through our digestive system without being absorbed. Another gain for people looking to shed those extra calories is that they can keep their favourite sweet foods in their regular diets (as long as they are artificially sweetened) and don't need to feel guilty about it anymore.

The most popular of these artificial sweeteners include saccharin (e.g., Sweet'N Low), aspartame (e.g., Equal and NutraSweet), sucralose (e.g., Splenda), cyclamate , herbal sweetener stevia etc. All these sweeteners are different in their structures and composition and to some extent, their tastes are different too. They are all different shades of "sweet". The reason that there are so many kinds of sweeteners available in the market is that no single sweetener can solve all the requirements of different products. For example, Sucralose (Splenda) is used in baked goods because it can withstand heat. Aspartame is found in light and sugar-free dairy products like yogurt. Sugar alcohols like xylitol and sorbitol are routinely used in sugar-free ice cream.

Today, artificial sweeteners find their application in many our everyday life products. Not just in soft-drinks, juices, cakes and as a direct replacement of table sugar, but, we use them every day in products like our toothpaste, mouthwash, chewable vitamins and cough drops, chewing gums and many other daily life products like that.

Here are the possible health benefits of these artificial sweeteners:

1. Assistance in controlling weight: One of the most appealing aspects of artificial sweeteners is that they are non-nutritive -- they have virtually no calories. For instance, each gram of regular table sugar contains 4 calories. For perspective, consider that one 12-ounce can of a sweetened cola contain 8 teaspoons of added sugar, or about 130 calories. If you're trying to lose weight or prevent weight gain, products sweetened with artificial sweeteners rather than with higher calorie table sugar may be an attractive option.

2. Controlling Diabetes: Artificial sweeteners may be a good alternative to sugar for someone who suffers from diabetes. This is because, unlike natural sugar, artificial sweeteners generally don't raise blood sugar levels as they are not carbohydrates.

3. Dental Care: The main reason for dental problems such as cavities and tooth decay is that the sugar present in our eatables adheres to the tooth enamel. The bacteria present in our mouth feed on these sugary substances, they multiply in numbers and in turn produce an acidic waste which ultimately eats the tooth enamel and causes cavities and tooth decays. Artificial sweeteners prevent this because the bacteria can't ferment them. So the bacteria do not adhere to the tooth enamel and hence, the damage is prevented to a large extent.

4. Longevity for food items: As already stated, most of the artificial sweeteners cannot be fermented by the bacteria, so in that way they are very useful in increasing in the shelf life of various eatables that generally decay in sometime due the bacterial fermentation of sugars present in them.

The other side: Possible health issues due to artificial sweeteners
So far, whatever we have discussed sounds very good. These artificial sweeteners have a lot of advantages over regular table sugar. So why haven't the artificial sweeteners been able to replace the natural sugar completely? This is because there are quite a few downsides to the use of various artificial sweeteners.

1. Serious health problems: Artificial sweeteners have been the subject of intense scrutiny for decades. Critics of artificial sweeteners say that they cause a variety of health problems, including cancer. But according to many new researches, there's no sound scientific evidence that any of the approved artificial sweeteners cause cancer or other serious health problems, if any, those might arise due to excessive intakes of these sweeteners, as once tested on the rats. Saccharin has been shown to cause effects such as depressed growth, anaemia, iron, vitamin A, and folate deficiency and elevated vitamin E in rats. But still, the safe amount for consumption of different artificial sweeteners is defined by various food authorities throughout the world and care should be taken by the consumers not to exceed the defined quantities. The acceptable daily intake (ADI) is defined as an intake that "individuals in a (sub) population may be exposed [to] daily over their lifetimes without appreciable health risk" (World Health Organization, 2004). The ADI for saccharin is currently 5 mg/kg of body weight per day and for acesulfame-K is 15 mg/kg of body weight per day.

2. Affecting metabolism: Professors in the Department of Psychological Sciences found that artificial sweeteners may interfere with the body's natural ability to "count" calories. Our bodies' ability to match how many calories we need with how many calories we take in is partially based on how sweet a food is. The sweeter and denser it is, the higher it is in calories. Our bodies use this as a measure to tell us when to stop eating. Artificial sweeteners, somehow, hamper this process. By eating and drinking foods and beverages that use artificial sweeteners (and therefore have lower calories), we may be retraining our bodies to no longer associate sweetness with higher calories. That means that when we eat or drink foods sweetened with real sugar, our bodies miscalculate the true calories associated with that food. As a result, we consume more calories. Effect of saccharin in rats has been tested and demonstrated increased intake of no-calorie sugar substitutes could promote increased food intake and body weight gain.

Studies have shown both positive and negative effects of using artificial sweeteners therefore whether to use or not is still controversial. But being on safer side is always better and thus the consumer should make choice wisely and always remember the recommended intake amounts.

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