By Herb Weisbaum
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/29/2006 1:31:05 PM ET 2006-08-29T17:31:05

Millions of Americans are trying to cut back on sugar by using artificial sweeteners. Sales of these sugar substitutes are soaring, and yet, some people worry about using them.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about how the sweeteners aspartame and sucralose are really bad for you. Is this true?
-
Amber W., Cincinnati, Ohio

No, it’s not true. Some people remain suspicious of all artificial sweeteners, even though extensive research has not found any significant health concerns.

Aspartame, sold under the brand names Equal and NutraSweet, is one of the most tested substances ever allowed in our food supply. It’s also approved for use in more than 100 other countries.

There’s no reason to believe any of the “warnings” flying around the Internet that claim aspartame causes Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, brain damage, or any other serious disease. And the latest research shows there’s no need to be concerned about cancer.

Last April, the National Cancer Institute released the results of a huge federal study involving more than a half million adults 50 to 69 years old.  Based on that research, the Institute concluded there is “no evidence” any artificial sweetener on the market in the U.S. today is “related to cancer risk in humans.”

OK, so you don’t trust the government. Then consider this: The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the consumer group that has questioned the safety of aspartame for almost 30 years, praised this study, saying it “significantly allays concerns” about cancer. 

“The bottom line is that aspartame is probably safe,” the center says on its Web site.

Products containing aspartame can be harmful to people with phenylketonuria or PKU, a rare genetic disease, so products with aspartame carry a PKU warning. For everyone else, there’s nothing to worry about.

Sucralose, sold under the brand name Splenda, is made from sugar that has been chemically engineered to pass through your body without being digested. That’s why it tastes like sugar but is calorie free.

Splenda is now the number one sugar substitute on the market, found in salad dressing, cereal and beverages, as well as those little yellow packets.
“Sucralose has been studied for a long time,” says Dr. John Swartzberg, head of the editorial board at the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, “and there is no evidence of any harm to human beings.”

Does sucralose (Splenda) show up on a diabetic’s blood test?
-Patrick B., Mason, Mich.

According to the American Diabetes Association, artificial sweeteners such as Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low, Sugar Twin), Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), Acesulfame K (Sweet One, Sunett), and Sucralose (Splenda) are “free foods” because they do not have any calories and do not raise blood glucose levels. “They do not count as a carbohydrate, a fat, or any other exchange,” the ADA says, so they can be “added to your meal plan instead of substituted.”

Why don’t you see more xylitol used as a sugar substitute? What makes it any different than sucralose? It’s supposed to be good for your teeth. Is it?
-
K.N., Seattle.

Xylitol is a natural sweetener made from corn stalks in the U.S. and birch chips in Europe. Xylitol is used in sugarless gums, candies, ice cream, and many diabetic foods.

It’s low-calorie, not no-calorie. While sucralose is calorie-free, xylitol has about 2.4 calories per gram.

Here’s why you don’t find it in more foods. Eating too much xylitol in one day can cause intestinal problems, such as gas, bloating and diarrhea.  Sucralose does not cause this GI distress.

You’re right; xylitol is good for your teeth. Studies have shown it can prevent new cavities and help slow or reverse the decay taking place in existing cavities.

How much xylitol do you need to get this beneficial effect? The American Dental Association says more testing needs to be done before a “daily dose” can be set. A study done by the University of Michigan in 1993 found that xylitol-sweetened gum had to be chewed “for at least five minutes, three to five times a day” to be effective.

I always wondered how much less caffeine there is in decaffeinated coffee than regular. -Joe Hoffman, Minneapolis, Minn.

An 8 ounce cup of brewed coffee has about 135 milligrams of caffeine. The same amount of brewed decaf has about 5 mg. There are ways to have real coffee and cut your caffeine intake. You’ll get about 95 mg of caffeine in 8 ounces of instant coffee.  A 1 ounce shot of espresso only has 30 to 50 mg. So a single-shot latte has significantly less caffeine than a cup of regular drip coffee. For comparison, a 12 ounce Diet Coke has 47 mg of caffeine.

Health experts at the Mayo Clinic say moderate doses of caffeine (200 to 300 mg a day) are not harmful for most people. But more than 500 mg a day, they say, “can cause irritability, nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, headaches and diarrhea.”

We need you to settle an argument between spouses. How long can raw meat or poultry be stored in the freezer before deteriorating and possibly causing food poisoning vs. cooked meat or poultry stored in the freezer?
-Laura H., Berkeley, Calif.

Meat and poultry, whether raw or cooked, are safe in the freezer “indefinitely,” according to the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. The problem with keeping any food frozen too long is quality – it may develop freezer burn. It’s still safe to eat; it just might not look or taste as good. It can also develop an odor.

When it comes to safe storage in the refrigerator the clock is ticking, because refrigeration does not stop bacteria growth; it only slows it.
USDA food safety guidelines say to cook raw chicken within 1 to 2 days of purchase. Raw meat will keep fresh for 3 to 4 days. Cooked chicken or meat will keep in the fridge for 3 to 4 days.

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