Artificial sweeteners can be hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. These intense sweeteners are typically used in diet and low-sugar foods and drinks. Reports link many of them to cancer.
Artificial sweeteners and cancer
In the 1970s, several studies of rats that were fed very large amounts of saccharin (954)found its use was associated with a higher incidence of bladder cancer. It was banned in Canada, and until 1996 products containing saccharin in the US had to be labeled with a warning. But research in humans largely failed to turn up that risk, and in 2000 the US Government’s National Toxicology Program delisted saccharin as a possible carcinogen.
Research in 2005 from the European Ramazzini Foundation (updated in 2007) found feeding rats aspartame (951) at simulated doses around levels considered safe for humans increased the rats’ risk of leukaemia, lymphoma and breast cancer.
Another intense sweetener, cyclamate (952), was banned in Canada, the UK and the US over 30 years ago because animal studies indicated links to cancer, but this ban was lifted in the UK in 1996 following further studies. However, another UK survey found some children could be consuming up to twice the ADI for cyclamate. A survey by FSANZ similarly found that 5% of Australian kids were exceeding the acceptable daily intake (ADI0 for cyclamate. Cyclamate is still approved for use in Australia.
Artificial sweeteners and pregnancy
In 2010 Danish researchers linked the consumption of artificially sweetened, but not sugar-sweetened, soft drinks to preterm delivery of babies. Though the study couldn’t distinguish between the various artificial sweeteners, aspartame and acesulfame-potassium are the most widely used. The authors suggested that the cause of the problem might be the methanol released when aspartame breaks down in the container or in the body. More research is needed on this issue. In the meantime, pregnant women might want to make a special effort to avoid consuming artificial sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners and other health concerns
Aspartame has also been linked to headaches, allergies, and changes in behaviour. But a review funded by the industry of more than 500 studies, including the Ramazzini research, concluded that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a non-nutritive sweetener. While many scientists remain concerned about the Ramazzini Foundation results, FSANZ and the US food regulatory authority told us they see no reason to alter their position that aspartame is safe.
There’s certainly a bigger risk to your health from being overweight than there is from eating artificially-sweetened products.
Sweeteners have often been recommended to aid in weight loss, but there’s conflicting research about the health benefits of artificially-sweetened drinks. Some studies show that regular consumption of artificially-sweetened beverages reduces the intake of calories and promotes weight loss or weight maintenance, other research shows no effect, and some studies even show weight gain.
The jury’s still out on the absolute safety of artificial sweeteners, so it makes sense to limit your and your children’s intake of artificially-sweetened foods and drinks. Losing weight without the help of artificial sweeteners would be the win/win situation.
Those who should definitely avoid aspartame are people with the rare disorder phenylketonuria, or PKU, who must limit their intake of phenylalanine, an amino acid in aspartame.