Sugar Substitutes

By Charlyn Fargo

I’m a Diet Coke lover. Ever since college, when Tab was popular, I’ve preferred diet drinks to regular. Now that I’ve consumed diet drinks more than regular, I don’t even like the taste of regular sodas.

As a dietitian, I take some criticism. There are those who think sugar is healthier than sweeteners or that everyone should simply drink water. I don’t disagree water is the best choices, but sometimes, nothing satisfies my taste buds like a Diet Coke.

Are sugar substitutes OK to drink?

The FDA states that sugar substitutes, or high-intensity sweeteners, including acesulfame-K, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, advantame and sucralose are safe to eat in the amounts that people typically consume.

But just how much is acceptable and safe for human consumption?

Regulatory agencies set Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) levels for each artificial sweetener. The ADI is the maximum amount of a food additive that can be safely consumed on a daily basis over a person’s lifetime without any adverse effects. Although the number of diet soft drinks and other “sugar free” products we devour may seem high, the U.S. intake of sugar substitutes is actually well below the ADI even for the heaviest users, namely dieters, adults, children with diabetes and women of child-bearing age.

To get an idea of how much sugar substitutes can be consumed without adverse effects, consider the following examples: A 150-pound adult can safely consume 2.4 cans of 12-ounce soda or 8.6 packets of sweetener containing saccharin daily. Similarly, that same adult can safely consume 17 cans of 12-ounce soda or 97.4 packets of artificial sweetener containing aspartame daily and not be adversely affected. Meanwhile, the ADI for saccharin for a 50-pound child is .8 of a 12-ounce can of soda daily and 2.8 packets of sweetener, or 5.6 cans of soda and 32.4 packets of artificial sweetener containing aspartame.

Most, if not all of us, fall well below that in our consumption.

Foods may naturally contain the same “chemicals” as a sugar substitute, and sometimes in greater quantities than the artificial sweetener itself. For example: A serving of non-fat milk provides almost six to nine times more phenylalanine and 13 times more aspartic acid than the same amount of beverage sweetened with aspartame. A serving of tomato juice, however, provides almost four to six times more methanol than the same amount of beverage sweetened with aspartame.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to know exactly how much of sugar substitutes Americans consume. The intake of such substitutes in the United States has only been measured for aspartame and only from 1984 to 1992. More recent studies in various other countries show estimated intake values for aspartame, acesulfame-K, saccharin and sucralose generally below their country’s established ADIs.

The bottom line is that there is a fair amount of evidence to confirm the safety of sweeteners at levels consumed within the Acceptable Daily Intake levels.

My motto? Everything in moderation, balance and variety. A Diet Coke, once in a while, isn’t going to hurt, and will save calories over a regular Coke. But alternate that soda with plenty of water.

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About the author

Charlyn Fargo spent 27 years at the State Journal-Register covering agriculture, business and food. She currently is the Bureau Chief of County Fairs & Horse Racing with the Illinois Department of Agriculture. She is also a Registered Dietitian and writes a weekly syndicated nutrition column for Creator’s News Service ( and is co-owner of Simply Fair, a fair trade boutique at 2357 W. Monroe in Springfield. She has bachelor’s degrees in agricultural communications and food from the University of Illinois, Champaign and a master’s degree in nutrition from Eastern Illinois University. She and her husband, Brad Ware, have a daughter, Kate, and son, Jayden. When she’s not working or writing, she enjoys baking cookies for Simply From Scratch, a company she formed to support faith-based ministries.

View all articles by Charlyn Fargo

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