Popping in a Splenda® instead of regular sugar into our daily coffees is what we should be doing, right? There always seems to be a lot of talk about artificial sweeteners, and the debate as to whether they’re doing more bad than good for our health. If food companies promote them as a suitable alternative to sugar, and in the meantime, studies are released stating they could be causing cancer, it can become really confusing!

Firstly, let’s define the term ‘artificial sweetener’ 
Artificial sweeteners, also known as non-nutritive sweeteners or sugar substitutes, are food additives designed to replace part or all of the sugar we add to our foods and beverages. Artificial sweeteners provide a sweet taste while being kilojoule-free. This means they do not raise blood sugar levels and makes them a suitable alternative to sugar for those living with diabetes or pre-diabetes or for people watching their weight.

Do artificial sweeteners cause cancer?

Quite simply, no. There is not enough evidence to prove that artificial sweeteners cause cancer. The research that raised concerns about the safety of artificial sweeteners were performed on animals, not humans. According to the Dietitians Association of Australia, the dosage of artificial sweeteners used in the experiments was “many times greater than it would be possible to eat or drink”.

Which brands of artificial sweeteners are safe for consumption?

All artificial sweeteners sold in Australia have been tested and approved by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), ensuring they are safe to eat. The common artificial sweetener Aspartame (e.g. Nutrasweet®, Equal®, Hermesetas Gold®, and Equal Spoonful®) has been declared safe by FSANZ for most people, with the exception of people with phenylketonuria (a rare genetic disorder that is screened for at birth).

What if I’m pregnant or breastfeeding?

If you decide to use artificial sweeteners during pregnancy or breastfeeding, FSANZ recommends the following: Aspartame, Sucralose, Acsulphame K, and Alitame.

Can I use artificial sweeteners in meals that I prepare and cook at home?

Absolutely! “Granular” versions such as Equal® Spoonful, Splenda® Granular, and Neotame can be added during cooking or baking. The other artificial sweeteners are affected by heat, so it’s best to add them after cooking.

Hints and tips when using artificial sweeteners:

  • Shop smart! Be sure to read the nutrition labels when choosing sugar-free foods – they may well have no or low amounts of sugar, however, they may have high amounts of fat (particularly saturated fat) or salt (eg. sugar-free chocolate).
  • Only use small amounts! Some artificial sweeteners have the sweetening power that is much more intense than regular sugar! 1 teaspoon of Equal® is equivalent to 2 teaspoons of regular sugar.
  • Don’t use them to increase portion sizes! Replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners may make it seem like you can afford to eat larger portion sizes – but it shouldn’t! Maintaining a varied and balanced diet from the five food groups is key!

This article was co-authored by Laura Dabit, who is currently studying her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics from The University of Sydney