There are many conjectures about the putative role of artificial sweeteners, also called nonnutritive sweeteners, as a risk factor for autism. These conjectures arise primarily from blogs within the Internet that sustain the role of a “toxic” overload as the causative factor for autism. Parents wonder whether consumption of these compounds during either pregnancy or breastfeeding may have caused their children’s problems. They ascribe the rising prevalence of autism to the ongoing obesity epidemic and attempts to curb the same with non-caloric substitutes for sugar. It is therefore not surprising that the probable association between artificial sweeteners and autism is a question that I hear every few weeks from concerned parents.
To my knowledge no scientific study has evaluated the problem or supported the claim of a probable association between autism and artificial sweeteners. At present artificial sweeteners are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as food additives and are generally considered safe if used in limited quantities. Although of use by obese individuals trying to lose weight or diabetics trying to control their blood sugar there are detrimental effects to their use. Some studies suggest the possible role of artificial sweeteners in health problems ranging from headaches to seizures and, paradoxically, as weight gain agents. In this regard everybody should be aware of the many health concerns regarding these chemical agents.
Sugar replacers or sweeteners are ubiquitous in modern society. These chemical substitutes of sucrose (i.e., table sugar) are of different types. Artificial sweeteners (e.g., Aspartame, Sucralose) are just one type of sugar substitute presently found in thousands of food products. They can be commercially synthesized or extracted from herbs. They are usually many times sweeter than sugar so a lesser amount of the compound is needed to provide the same level of sweetness. Animal studies using very large doses of Aspartame have indicated a possible link to cancer but health related agencies have called these results into question. Laboratory studies do show that aspartame may kill neurons in the brain and some investigators suggest its involvement in neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinsons and Alzheimer’s disease. Although the brain is protected by a blood-brain barrier some medical conditions and stages during development (i.e., unborn children) may not insulate the brain from this chemical. The most common side effect reported with this chemical is migraine headaches, while other side effects include seizures, depression, and even weight gain. Aspartame in its dry form is 11% methanol. Ingestion of methanol may provide for metabolic acidosis, disturbances of heart rhythm, and neurological sequelae.
Sugar alcohols are another type of sugar replacer that occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables but can also be manufactured. Sugar alcohols may contain calories, but at a lower level than sugar. They are usually found in candy, bubble gum, ice cream, cookies and pudding. Many of these products are labelled “sugar-free” but still have sugar alcohols in them (e.g., glycerol, mannitol, sorbitol). In comparison to sucrose they have less energy as sugars and a lower glycemic response (i.e., do not elevate sugar as much) therefore reducing the risk for dental carries. Some people claim that they probably have a prebiotic effect by inducing the growth of bacteria and fungi that contribute to the well-being of their host. When consumed in excessive amounts sugar alcohols may cause bloating and diarrhea.
Nearly a third of the extra sugar you consume comes from sugar sweetened beverages, primarily fructose corn syrup. Some people have suggested a possible link between the introduction of high fructose syrup some 30 years ago and our obesity epidemic. In effect, tts use has been related not only to significant weigh gain but also to an increased risk for developing Type-2 diabetes, hypertension and elevated bad cholesterol (LDL) levels.
If given a choice to take artificial sweeteners the best answer is none.A good article about artificial sweeteners with a historical introduction is provided by Dr. Mercola at http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/10/13/artificial-sweeteners-more-dangerous-than-you-ever-imagined.aspx#!