Artificial Sweeteners and Brain Tumors: A Link?

Artificial sweeteners are a hot topic. The food and beverage industry markets them as a healthy alternative to sugar, however there is a growing belief that artificial sweeteners can cause brain tumors.

What Are Artificial Sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are used in place of sugar to sweeten food and beverage. There many types of artificial sweeteners:

  • Saccharin

  • Aspartame

  • Acesulfame potassium (branded as ACK, Sweet One, and Sunett)

  • Sucralose (branded as Splenda)

  • Neotame

  • Cyclamate


During the 1970s, scientists discovered a link between saccharin and bladder cancer in rats. This placed saccharin on the list of substances that may cause cancer in humans. During this time, warning labels were placed on all food and beverage that contained saccharin.

However, around 2000 studies determined that something in the physiology of rats, which is not found in humans, caused this increase. At that time, saccharin was declared safe for consumption and removed from the list.


Aspartame is better known by some of its brand names, such as NutraSweet and Equal. After testing showed that aspartame did not cause cancer in laboratory animals, the FDA approved aspartame for human consumption in 1981.

Due to a rise in the number of cases of brain tumors during the 80s and 90s, aspartame was suggested as a possible cause. However, statistics calculated by the National Cancer Institute determined that the rise of brain tumor cases started in 1973, eight years before aspartame was introduced. In addition, the majority of brain tumor cases occurred in a generation that had not had a high exposure to aspartame.

Later studies revealed that high doses of aspartame caused cancer in rats, however inconsistencies in the data leave doubt as to whether aspartame was responsible.

In 2006, the National Cancer Institute performed a study of subjects aged 50 to 69 to determine a link between aspartame consumption and brain tumors. The study did not find any statistic link. However, opponents of aspartame consumption argue that the study was flawed.

There are also theories that the FDA’s approval of aspartame is not due to human safety, but due to influence from those with a financial stake in it. However, when the Government Accountability Office looked into the case in 1987, they determined that proper procedure in the approval process was followed.

Another concern by many is that aspartame contains methanol. Methanol is broken down by the body into formic acid and formaldehyde, however aspartame does not contain more methanol than other beverages, nor does it break down into more formic acid or formaldehyde than the body is used to removing in its own processes.


Like Saccharin, scientists determined that Cyclamate may be a cause of bladder cancer in rats. The FDA banned its use in 1969, however later studies determined that cyclamate does not cause cancer in humans. The product is still banned from use. 

Other Artificial Sweeteners

At this time, there are no other artificial sweeteners known to cause cancer in animals or humans. While there is debate that artificial sweeteners may be harmful and cause cancer, most research seems to regard it as safe.


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