Artificial sweeteners like Splenda and aspartame have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and pronounced safe to consume by groups such as the International Food Information Council.
Yet some dietitians at food retailers remain unconvinced that the ersatz sweeteners in such products as sugar-free candy are all that great, especially for children. When it comes to confections, Barbara Ruhs, corporate registered dietician for Bashas', Chandler, Ariz., has no problem with sugar-free gum, which she acknowledged has been documented to lower the risk for cavities. But she doesn’t regard sugar-free candy as healthier options for kids.
"There's tons of media information that says it’s safe, but as a dietician I don’t want to feed children artificial sweeteners," said Ruhs. “I don’t want to get them hooked on artificial stuff."
Ruhs pointed to studies that indicate sugar-free foods may actually increase a person’s desire for sugar and lead to weight gain.
"The brain is getting the message that this is sweet but it’s not getting enough calories, so it primes the pump for a person to eat more," she said.
Ruhs would prefer to see parents give children a few pieces of real candy than a bag of sugar-free candy. "I'd rather they eat a smaller quantity and savor it and appreciate having a really delectable chocolate," she said.
For adults, Ruhs sees a place for sugar-free candy in the diets of diabetics, but she’s reluctant to endorse it for the average consumer. Again, portion control is the key. "If you have sugar-free candy, have a couple of pieces, not the whole box," she said.
Ruhs is the architect of Bashas' Eat Smart nutritional labeling program, which she launched in February. One of the nutritional shelf tags she designed is for "sugar smart" products, which have less than 10 grams of sugar.
Products with those labels are distributed through the chain’s 132 stores, and Bashas' is developing a special section featuring those products; it also has a diet section that includes sugar-free items.
Skogen's Festival Foods, a 14-store chain based in Green Bay, Wis., employs the NuVal nutritional rating system, which ranks products from 1 to 100 on shelf price labels — the higher the score, the better the overall nutrition. Stephanie Walker, Skogen's registered dietitian, noted that foods containing high-intensity sweeteners, such as artificial sweeteners, may score higher with NuVal than their sugar-sweetened counterparts.
"If all other nutrients are the same, a food with less sugar will score better," she said. "NuVal does not take into account whether an artificial sweetener is used or not, only added sugar."