Sugar substitutes can taste just as sweet, but are they healthy?

That's the topic of a seminar at St. Anthony's Medical Center, where dietitians and nurses will offer information and tips on regulating sugar intake with artificial sweeteners.

The sweeteners are safer than you might think and can be a valuable tool in weight loss and management, said dietitian Elizabeth Patton, who will help lead the class.

"One of the biggest benefits is calorie savings, which can help with weight loss, as well as carbohydrate savings, which helps with blood sugar levels," Patton said.

The most common artificial sweeteners — saccharin, aspartame, sucralose and highly refined stevia — are approved as food additives by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Sweeteners have long faced controversy after studies in the 1970s showed saccharin caused bladder cancer in lab rats. Epidemiological studies with people did not uncover the same link, and the National Cancer Institute states "there is no clear evidence that the artificial sweeteners available commercially in the United States are associated with cancer risk in humans."

Patton added that research also doesn't support the theories that sugar substitutes can contribute to weight gain, cause sugar cravings or increase blood sugar levels.

The FDA has collected 15 years of consumer complaints about adverse reactions to sweeteners and concluded that "there is no convincing evidence of a cause and effect relationship between these sweeteners and negative health effects in humans."

The FDA sets acceptable daily limits for the sweeteners that are many times lower than what would be considered a health risk. The recommended daily limit on aspertame is equivalent of 21 cans of diet soda, according to the American Cancer Society.

Diet sodas are fine to drink in moderation, Patton said. While water and milk are healthier, diet sodas are preferable to regular.

And while apples and grapes are the best way to cure a sweet tooth, artificial sweeteners can be part of a healthy diet when used in moderation, Patton said.

Participants will get to taste test some of the more popular sugar substitutes and get recipes and cooking tips for using the sweeteners at home. Sugar cooks differently than artificial sweeteners, so it cannot always be swapped out equally.

The instructors also will deal with the proliferation of sugar-free products in grocery stores and how to read the labels. Sugar-free products can be higher in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium and therefore less healthy than their sugared counterparts.

The free presentation is part of the hospital's diabetes education and support program, but is open to anyone.

The seminar is scheduled for 1 to 2:30 p.m. on March 17 in the Hyland Education and Training Center conference room on the campus of St. Anthony's, 10020 Kennerly Road.

For more information or to register for the event, call 1-800-554-9550 or visit www.stanthonysmedcenter.com.