Do Artificial Sweeteners Increase Cancer Risk?

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Artificial sweeteners have been proved to cause cancer in animals but not in humans (in limited quantities). The FDA has approved and prescribed a recommended acceptable daily intake for saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium, and advantame. Still on the fence? Opt for natural options like honey, molasses, and maple syrup to gratify your sweet tooth.

A variety of products tagged ‘sugar-free’, ‘no added sugar’, ‘diabetic-friendly’, or ‘diet’ are increasingly taking pride of place in our pantries. A major ingredient in these products is artificial or high-intensity sweeteners.

Synthetic substitutes for sugar, artificial sweeteners1 can be found in beverages, baked goodies, salad dressings, dairy products, chewing gums, soft drinks, diet sodas, and fruit juices, among others. They mimic the properties of regular sugar, contributing fewer calories to your diet, and are considered to be a good substitute for sugar.

While each tablespoon of sugar contains 4 calories, artificial sweeteners contain no calories.2 They are also sweeter than regular sugar, which means they can be consumed in comparatively smaller quantities.3

These low-calorie sugar substitutes have also shown positive effects in dental care, in controlling diabetes and reactive hypoglycemia, and in combating obesity.4

In all, artificial sweeteners seem like a gift from heaven, but they do come with a catch! A major, ongoing concern in health and medical communities is about whether artificial sweeteners pose a cancer threat to human beings.

Link To Cancer Risks Of Artificial Sweeteners

Concerns about the carcinogenic effects of artificial sweeteners first arose in the early 1970s when saccharin was linked to bladder cancer in laboratory rats. Several subsequent studies linked the use of artificial sweeteners to cancer in lab animals. As a result, sweeteners like saccharin and cyclamates were banned or labeled as carcinogenic in countries such as Canada and the US.

But, a host of research studies have subsequently shown that although high-dose artificial sweetener use has been linked to cancer in animals, there is no sound scientific evidence to support such a link in humans.5

Several health agencies such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Cancer Institute endorse this view and have confirmed that approved artificial sweeteners in limited quantities are safe for human consumption.6

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) too has been meticulous in testing and approving the use of artificial sweeteners. Today, six sweeteners are approved by the FDA as safe for human consumption. They are saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), sucralose, neotame, and advantame.7

Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) For Artificial Sweeteners

To sum up, there is no evidence to establish a carcinogenic risk due to the use of artificial sweeteners in humans.8 But, research studies and health agencies unanimously recommend consumption of artificial sweeteners within certain limits.

For instance, the FDA has prescribed a recommended acceptable daily intake (ADI) level for the six sweeteners it has approved. The ADI is the safe quantity of a sweetener a person can consume in a day over a lifetime.9 These prescribed limits are almost 100 times less than the smallest amount which may cause health issues.10

What Are The Natural Alternatives To Artificial Sweeteners?

The carcinogenic nature of artificial sweeteners is unfounded as of now. But, if the debate makes you uncomfortable, you could look at herbal or natural alternatives.

While artificial sweeteners are derived from chemical synthesis, herbal or natural sweeteners are extracted from plants or natural products and may have some nutritional value.

Honey, nectars, molasses, and maple syrup are recognized as safe for consumption by the FDA.11 But, do remember that these natural products may not offer much of a calorific benefit as against sugar.

On the other hand, they are often sweeter than sugar, which means the quantity consumed will be lesser. In effect, the best way to deal with the usage of sweeteners, both natural or artificial, would be through controlled consumption.

Moderation is indeed the key!

References   [ + ]

1. Artificial Sweeteners And Other Sugar Substitutes, Mayo Clinic.
2. Chattopadhyay, Sanchari, Utpal Raychaudhuri, and Runu Chakraborty. “Artificial sweeteners–a review.” Journal of food science and technology 51, no. 4 (2014): 611-621.
3. Much, How Much Is Too. “The Truth about Artificial Sweeteners or Sugar Substitutes.” (2011).
4. Khan, S. A. “Artificial sweeteners: safe or unsafe?.” JPMA. The Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association 65, no. 2 (2015): 225-227.
5. Artificial Sweeteners Do Not Increase Cancer Risk, Cancer Council, NSW.
6. Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer, National Cancer Institute.
7. High Intensity Sweeteners, FDA, U.S. Food And Drug Administration.
8. Weihrauch, M. R., and V. Diehl. “Artificial sweeteners—do they bear a carcinogenic risk?.” Annals of Oncology 15, no. 10 (2004): 1460-1465.
9. How much high-intensity sweetener is safe to eat?, FDA, U.S. Food And Drug Administration.
10. Moderation Is Key With Sugar Substitutes, Mayo Clinic.
11. Natural Sweeteners, Mayo Clinic.