We say, stick to the real thing! Just have less of it 🙂 –

The F.D.A. places the three main artificial sweeteners available today in the same category: “generally recognized as safe.” The manufacturers cite multitudes of health studies to back up that assertion.

But critics — particularly of aspartame, sold as Equal or NutraSweet — say that health problems like headaches, neurological disorders and cancers are occurring, but that regulators are ignoring them.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group, slaps an “avoid” label on saccharin and aspartame, but deems sucralose and neotame — a newer, more intense sweetener that is chemically similar to aspartame — to be safe. The center also warns against acesulfame potassium, a less common sweetener that is rarely found in tabletop packets but is combined with other sweeteners in soda and baked goods for a more sugarlike taste.

For those who turn to stevia, a sweetener derived from a plant, the center gives it a “caution,” because cancer studies were conducted in only one species of lab animals. (“Just because a substance is natural does not mean that it is safe,” the center’s Web site warns.)

Saccharin, aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame potassium are all molecules that sidle up to certain proteins on the surface of the tongues, tickling neurons that then send a signal that exclaims to the brain: “Sweet!”

The concerns arise over what happens to the artificial sweeteners after they are swallowed.

Consider aspartame. It is essentially two amino acids and a molecular snippet known as a methyl ester. Certain people — about 1 in 25,000 in the United States — have a genetic condition that prevents them from metabolizing one of the amino acids, phenylalanine, and those people are warned away from aspartame.

Many foods contain the same two amino acids, in higher quantities. “It’s not like these are totally foreign, unique substances,” Dr. Willett said. “It doesn’t absolutely prove they’re harmless, but it makes it less likely that there’s a huge surprise waiting for us.”

Others look at the same components of aspartame and see poisons. The two amino acids, while essential for the human diet, cause problems when present out of balance, they say.

The third part, the methyl ester, turns into methanol, which is a poison — though fruit juices have higher concentrations of methanol. Woodrow C. Monte, emeritus professor of nutrition at the University of Arizona, ascribes a host of ills, including multiple sclerosis, to low-level methanol poisoning.

Dr. Willett said the long-term safety of the artificial sweeteners remained an open question. “It’s interesting to keep in mind, if you smoke cigarettes, the lung cancer risk doesn’t go up for 30 years,” he said. “And that’s a really powerful carcinogen. A lot of things don’t show up for several decades.”

He also noted that trans fats, used since 1900, did not show up on the radar of doctors’ concerns until the 1990s. “It took us about 90 years to discover it was a big problem,” Dr. Willett said. “It’s a bit sobering how long that took.”

In terms of relative risk — the known dangers of sugar and weight gain versus the uncertainties of artificial sweeteners — “artificially sweetened beverages are much less bad than the full-sugar beverages,” Dr. Willett said. Still, diet sodas are less than optimal. “I view them like a nicotine patch,” he said.

The better solution to protect health: Eat and drink less sweet stuff.

Click Doubts by the Teaspoonful – NYTimes.com to read the full article.