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Sugar Substitutes

The average American eats the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar a day, according to figures from the most recent federal Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals (1994-1996). Nearly 60 percent of this intake, says the trade group The Sugar Association, is from corn sweeteners, used heavily in sodas and other sweetened drinks. Another 40 percent is from sucrose (table sugar), and a small amount comes from other sweeteners, such as honey and molasses.

Humans naturally have an appetite for sugary things. But in excess, sugary foods can take a toll. Large quantities add up to surplus calories, which can contribute to weight gain. In order to lose weight, the total calories from foods, especially those with lots of calories from sugars as well as fats, must be decreased and physical activity increased. As a result, many consumers seeking to control their weight have turned to sugar substitutes as one way to help lower the daily calorie count without having to give up their favorite foods.

Two approved sugar substitutes, saccharin and aspartame, have been the subject of ongoing controversy that, in the case of saccharin, dates back more than 20 years. Questions still linger about whether saccharin may cause cancer in humans, and though the sweetener is still widely used, it carries a label that warns of its potential risks.

Aspartame has come under fire in recent years from individuals who have used the Internet in an attempt to link the sweetener to brain tumors and other serious disorders. But FDA stands behind its original approval of aspartame, and subsequent evaluations have shown that the product is safe. A tiny segment of the population is sensitive to one of the sweetener’s byproducts and should restrict intake.

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