Millions of Americans count on artificial sweeteners to help them cut back on calories. However, there are conflicting reports about these sugar substitutes’ effectiveness and safety. To help you make the best choices for you and your family, here are some things you should know.

Understanding the Facts About Artificial Sweeteners

1. Consider using Stevia. This natural herbal ingredient is classified as a dietary supplement rather than an artificial sweetener. While the FDA hasn’t approved Stevia as a sweetener, the plant itself has been used for centuries in South America and Japan.

2. Stay up to date on research. With so many of these substances in widespread use, they’re constantly in testing. There’s always something new to learn about them, and sometimes experimental results are surprising.

* A recent trial by the University of Texas found that diet soft drink users experienced 70 percent greater increases in waist circumference compared with non-users.

* A related study also found that aspartame raised blood sugar in diabetes-prone mice.

3. Artificial sweeteners may alter your body’s natural signals. Some studies suggest that sugar substitutes may confuse our bodies. Throughout most of human history, we could usually count on sweet foods to be heavy eating. Our bodies would let us know when we were eating too much. Now, however, things are different.

* It seems that humans may now be less sensitive to sensory clues that indicate which foods are fattening or unhealthy. This means that we may find it challenging to tell when we’ve had enough sugar. We may likewise have difficulty determining how much of any sweetener is too much.

* Although there’s no research definitively linking this tendency to the use of artificial sweeteners, speculation is rampant in the medical community. Expect to see quite a few published studies in the next few years.

Using Artificial Sweeteners Safely

1. Eat a balanced diet. Whether you eat sugar or substitutes, be sure to leave room for nutrient dense foods. Eat plenty of complex carbohydrates, lean proteins and some healthy fats.

2. Be realistic about calorie savings. It takes just 3,500 calories to gain a pound of body weight. That’s about 5 large servings of French fries a year. So if you switch to a diet food or drink to allow indulging elsewhere, avoid going overboard.

* Read labels carefully. Sugar-free foods may still be high in calories and fat. Examine the label to find out what you’re really eating.

3. Watch out for adverse reactions. If you experience side effects like headaches and upset stomachs when using an artificial sweetener, stop using the sweetener to see if your symptoms clear up.

4. Use sweeteners mindfully. Another good thing about sugar substitutes is that they can often be used in tiny quantities. Taste your food first so you add only as much as you need.

5. Cut back on sweets gradually. If you have trouble eating just one potato chip, you’ve seen firsthand how eating a lot of sweets and fats tends to make you crave more sweets and fats. If you want to cut down, do it a step at a time. For example, substitute berries for half of your regular bowl of ice cream.

6. Learn to love other flavors. Train yourself to appreciate flavors other than sweets. Put something new in your salad like tart okra or bitter radicchio.

7. Talk with your doctor. Discuss any questions you have about artificial sweeteners with your physician. This is especially important if you’re trying to lose weight for medical reasons or if you need to manage diabetes.

Knowing the facts about artificial sweeteners enables you to make informed decisions. Keeping up with current research and being smart about using these sugar substitutes will benefit you in many ways.