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A Tart Look at the Most-Used Sweetener You've Never Heard Of

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sugar and artificial sweeteners
How sweet it is? Or isn't? If you avoid sugar and imbibe artificial sweeteners to avoid calories, you might be interested to learn about one of the chemicals you are almost certainly ingesting. It's not all sweet.

More than 80,000 chemicals are produced, used, and present in the United States. This is one of their stories.

Today we look at what's in your sweetener.

When it comes to satisfying our sweet tooth, we've got choices. There's regular old sugar, of course. But sugar adds calories, and lots of us try to avoid unneeded calories to keep or get back our svelte bodies. For others, for example those with diabetes, sugar is simply not an alternative.

And so there are the sugar substitutes -- saccharin (Sweet'N Low), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), sucralose (Splenda), neotame and stevia. All but stevia (a nonnutritive, novel sweetener) is artificial, so using them carries some risk.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tells us these substitutes are "safe," but come on, who really knows what decades of ingesting a synthetic compound can do to one's body.

On the other hand, Americans as a group are overweight, and that is definitely not good for one's health and so maybe the risk of synthetic sweeteners is the safer bet.

So sugar or artificial sweetener? It's a personal choice and, hopefully, an informed one.

Now a Personal Confession

I generally avoid sugar -- I don't like what it does to me metabolically -- and anyone suggesting my choice is driven by vanity is ... well, probably a little bit right. But like most folks, I like a soda and other sweet things now and again. And so, when satisfying my sweet tooth, I opt for an artificial sweetener and, when given a choice, I go with sucralose/Splenda.

Why? Because all sucralose is is sucrose with three chlorine atoms substituted for three hydrogen atoms. The theory of non-toxicity being that when metabolized, the three chlorine atoms are removed and pass through your body much as the chlorine from table salt would, and the rest is just basically sugar. I know, that may be naïve and here is evidence that sucralose is not all that safe (see also here and here), but, knowing all that, I make an informed decision to take that risk and enjoy my artificially sweetened soda.

But here's the kicker. I've recently learned  that my decision is not all that informed after all. Here's why.

You may not know it, and it may not even say it on the label, but the chances are pretty good that if you're enjoying an artificially sweetened product, there's more than just aspertame, or sucrolose, or saccharine tickling your sweet tooth. In addition to one of those there's likely to be another artificial sweetner added in: acesulflame (pronounced AY-see-sul-fame-KAY) potassium also known as acesulfame K, ACK, Ace-K, Sunett or Sweet One. Here's a guide [pdf] to sweeteners found in diet sodas. Note Ace-K's prevalence in drinks using sucralose. And take a look at a packet of Equal. It's not just aspartame. Acesulflame-K is also listed as an ingredient.

What Is Ace-K

Technically, acesulfame potassium is 1,2,3-Oxathiazin-4(3H)-one, 6-methyl-, 2,2-dioxide, potassium salt, and it is found in a vast array of artificially sweetened products. First approved by the FDA in 1988 for use in dry food products and powder form and later expanded for use as a general sweetener, it is now routinely used in soda, baked goods, Kool-Aid, Jell-O, candy, cocoa mix, ice cream, yogurt, syrup, alcoholic drinks, you name it. It's even in pharmaceuticals. (For more, see here and here.)

It was discovered accidentally by Karl Clauss, a German chemist, in 1967, and now acesuflame potassium, with 200 times the sweetening power of sugar, is a sweetener of choice because of its stability when frozen or heated or under either moderately acidic or basic conditions, making it useful for frozen foods, baking purposes and for products with a long shelf life. It is not used just by itself (because at high concentrations it can taste bitter), but as an additive to other sweeteners, it apparently makes the confection taste more like sugar, hence its appearance in foods sweetened by sucralose or aspartame.

Maybe It's Sweet, but Is It Safe?

The FDA says the stuff is safe. To wit:

"Acesulfame potassium ... may be safely used as a general-purpose sweetener and flavor enhancer in foods generally, except in meat and poultry, in accordance with current good manufacturing practice and in an amount not to exceed that reasonably required to accomplish the intended technical effect in foods."

That conclusion, based on the results of testing done on mice and rats in the Netherlands for Ace-K's initial manufacturer (Hoechst) in the 1970s, is echoed [pdf] by others. For example, the International Food Information Council Foundation, a group that describes its mission as "effectively communicating science-based information on health, nutrition and food safety for the public good," writes that

"[a]cesulfame potassium is safe and suitable for all segments of the population."

But it should be noted that the group's board members include representatives from Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Mars and Dannon -- not exactly neutral when it comes to Ace-K's use.

The National Cancer Institute gives its seal of approval:

"Before approving these sweeteners, the FDA reviewed more than 100 safety studies that were conducted on each sweetener, including studies to assess cancer risk.  The results of these studies showed no evidence that these sweeteners cause cancer or pose any other threat to human health."

And, FamilyDoctor.org (a website of the American Academy of Family Physicians) writes:

"There have been more than 90 studies on the safety of acesulfame K, and the results have shown it to be safe for people to consume in moderation. Acesulfame K has been approved for use in the United States since 1988."

Others Question Ace-K's 'Safety'

The FDA and its compatriots notwithstanding, when it comes to artificial additives, there are always going to be those who advocate for caution. In the case of Ace-K, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which aims to promote "nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy, and sound science," is one such advocate -- and this is no fringe outfit. Founded by three scientists in the 1970s, the group helped put nutrition facts on labels and warnings on alcoholic beverages.

The group recommends that consumers "avoid" Ace-K, and explains why:

"The safety tests of acesulfame-K were conducted in the 1970s and were of mediocre quality. Key rat tests were afflicted by disease in the animal colonies; a mouse study was several months too brief and did not expose animals during gestation. Two rat studies suggest that the additive might cause cancer. It was for those reasons that in 1996 the Center for Science in the Public Interest urged the FDA to require better testing before permitting acesulfame-K in soft drinks. In addition, large doses of acetoacetamide, a breakdown product, have been shown to affect the thyroid in rats, rabbits, and dogs. Hopefully, the small amounts in food are not harmful, but it needs to be better tested."

The group backs up its recommendation with a robust list of quotes from "cancer experts" warning of the dangers of Ace-K.

Similar concerns appear on MedecineNet.com:

"The problems surrounding acesulfame K are based on the improper testing and lack of long-term studies. Acesulfame K contains the carcinogen methylene chloride. Long-term exposure to methylene chloride can cause headaches, depression, nausea, mental confusion, liver effects, kidney effects, visual disturbances, and cancer in humans. There has been a great deal of opposition to the use of acesulfame K without further testing, but at this time, the FDA has not required that these tests be done."

And then there's this 2010 paper by Myra Karstadt published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, which methodically reviewed those animal tests done way back in the 1970s and points our their flaws. Perhaps most worrisome were some results that suggested a link between Ace-K intake and cancer, results that were eventually rejected.

Still, Karstadt's recommendation seems quite reasonable. She does not suggest that we eliminate all uses of the sweetener posthaste, but that the compound be subjected to thorough testing under the National Toxicology Program. So far, such tests have not been carried out.

What to Think? What to Eat and Drink?

So, is this a story of a food additive that is safe, or do dangers lurk in every can of diet soda we quaff? I don't think we know.

What I do know is that all of us consumers are going to make a choice. You may decide to take the Center for Science in the Public Interest's advice and "avoid" Ace-K. But better bring your reading glasses when you go to the market because we're talking about reading labels with some very, very fine print.

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