There are many mantras in the world of coffee, one of them being that a truly excellent cup of coffee does not require cream or sugar. But if you're like the majority of Americans, you might need a little something sweet in your coffee (or tea!) to kick-start your morning. And that leads us to the wacky world of artificial sweeteners. With choices ranging from your grandma's Sweet'N Low to your cool mom's Truvia to the cancer-causing (maybe) aspartame to the good-for-you Stevia, how are you to know what to put in your coffee?
You'd be surprised to know that the little box of sweeteners at your coffee shop goes back to the 1870s, when saccharin was first discovered. It wasn't until World Wars I and II, when sugar was rationed, that the use of saccharin grew overnight. But the backlash against saccharin grew strong in 1960, when studies linked it to cancer in rats. After the FDA came out to ban the use of saccharin in the '70s (and placed moratoriums on the ban to allow for more research), the definitive conclusion is that saccharin is generally safe for consumption (and is now FDA-approved).
[slideshow: Then the light shone on aspartame, discovered in 1965. Aspartame is the sweetener that has become paired with the word "cancer" (seriously, hypochondriacs, don't Google aspartame). ABC News says more than 6,000 products now use aspartame, including diet beverages, dairy products, and desserts. It was linked to chronic fatigue syndrome, headaches, memory loss, and depression in some studies, but the evidence didn't quite add up to support the claims. (WebMD notes that the only medical condition that could be triggered by aspartame is a "genetic condition known as phenylketonuria (PKU), a disorder of amino acid metabolism.")
Now, there are five artificial sweeteners on the market that are FDA-approved: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. And then there's Stevia, the natural, low-calorie sweetener that's also been thrown into the mix in recent years. It's nearly impossible to eat, or drink, something without these artificial sweeteners these days — and they have a real impact on your eating habits.
Said David Ludwig, an obesity and weight-loss specialist at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital to Harvard Health Blog, artificial sweeteners trick our brains into eating more (i.e. "I’m drinking diet soda, so it’s OK to have cake"). But how we taste artificial sweeteners, and sugar, has become the true danger of artificial sweeteners. "Non-nutritive sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. A miniscule amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of sugar, without comparable calories. Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes," explained Ludwig.
And in our own taste test, that's what we noticed — it took much more sugar to add up to the sweetness of just a little bit of artificial sweetener. And the more sweetness your brain detects, the less you may be inclined to reach for a less sweetened food or drink, like fruit or (God forbid) water. However, it should be said that artificial and natural sweeteners do have some positives — especially for those watching their weight or looking to lower blood sugar levels (particular important for diabetics).
We decided to test-drive the pink, yellow, and blue packets you see at your local coffee shops ourselves. We tested six different sweeteners, three artificial, and three natural — and, of course, threw granulated white sugar into the mix to see if it could be detected among the bunch. We tasted them on their own, and in coffee, to rank our favorites in terms of taste, aftertaste, and overall sweetness. The results? Let's just say, the black coffee drinkers in the group felt validated in continuing to drink their coffee black.
The brands we tested:
Stevia Extract In the Raw
Monk fruit In the Raw
Click ahead to find the results of our taste test, in ascending order — and find out what's really in your sweetener.