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An artificial sweetener is a replacement for sugar, usually with less calories. It may also be suitable for people with certain dietary restrictions, such as diabetes, by omitting the sucrose. These types of sweeteners are a type of sugar substitute, but generally sugar substitutes include both natural substitutes, such as agave, and sweeteners, such as aspartame.
Many people notice a difference both in taste and feel when using an artificial sweetener, and it is rare to find one that exists as a perfect substitute for actual sugar. Sometimes a number of sweeteners will be used together, or with other flavor agents, to try to create a taste more similar to natural sugar. The texture of an the sweetener can also be made more like real sugar by adding some sort of a bulking agent, to give it a more similar weight.
There are five main artificial sweeteners that are approved for use in the United States and are found in many foods and beverages. These are: aspartame, acesulfame potassium, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose. All five exist under different brand names, as well. For example, aspartame can be found for sale as NutraSweet™, as can neotame, while acesulfame potassium can be found for sale as Nutrinova™.
A large push in the global market towards the artificial sweetener is a result of basic economics. Producing this type of sweetener is much, much cheaper than growing and refining actual sugar or other natural sweeteners, allowing a much larger profit margin for manufacturers. As a result, many companies are pushing their diet lines, which use artificial sweetening instead of actual sugar, since they make a great deal more money off of each unit sold. At the same time, the profit margins for manufacturers of artificial sweeteners are also very high, so they are constantly pushing their products on food and drink producers.
Aspartame is the most used artificial sweetener in the world. It was first discovered in 1965, and the patent eventually went to Monsanto. It was discovered accidentally, in pursuit of an anti-ulcer drug. When the scientist spilled some on himself, he licked it up and noticed it was sweet. Aspartame is an excellent sweetener because it is about two-hundred times as sweet as sugar itself. Aspartame has been the center of a health controversy since the early-1980s, when it was approved by the FDA for human consumption, in spite of a number of studies that suggested a link between its consumption and the generation of brain tumors.
Sucralose is quickly challenging aspartame, as processes for creating it become more refined and its price drops rapidly. It is about six-hundred times as sweet as sugar, and has had FDA approval since 1998. Although there are some health concerns about sucralose, the majority of the controversy over sucralose as an artificial sweetener comes from a slogan used by Splenda™, "Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar." The sugar industry in the United States has taken the company to court a number of times over that slogan, since as a sweetener sucralose is made only tangentially from sugar.
@Soulfox -- The United States government still allows for the sale and distribution of aspartame. Based on that, I hope we can assume that it is safe.
Still, it is a chemical sweetener and that turns off some people.
If you want to be totally safe, stick with some of the more natural sweeteners out there. You can even find some diet soda that uses those sweeteners.
Otherwise, if the federal government thinks that aspartame is safe, who am I to disagree? It has been in use for decades and I am not aware of any public outcry against it.
Aspartame is possibly the most widely used of all artificial sweeteners (diet sodas use aspartame almost exclusively), but it is very controversial. There are people out there that swear that aspartame is harmful to humans and warn against it.
I am no scientist, so I don't know if those warnings carry any weight. Is aspartame harmful or not?