Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer: Myth vs. Fact

With rising rates of diabetes and obesity, many consumers are looking for products with lower amounts of sugar and fat. Many of these products use artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to lower calories and reduce the risk of raising blood sugar. Some groups, however, have called the sugar substitutes into question, linking them to cancer in animal studies. But what is fact and what is fiction?

Myth: Saccharin Causes Bladder Cancer

Fact: Studies in the 1970 linked saccharin with the development of bladder cancer in laboratory rats. Subsequent studies were conducted to either confirm or refute the results found that high doses of saccharin intake increased the incidence of urinary cancer. Upon further review, the mechanism of action that causes the substance to damage and cause cells to multiply (as in cancer cells) only applies in animals, specifically rats, and that human studies have found no such link. The product was removed from the National Toxicology Program’s “Report on Carcinogens” in 2000.

Myth: Aspartame Causes Brain Tumors

Fact: Aspartame has been called “the most studied food additive” by the Food and Drug Administration. After review of a 1996 report that suggested that the increase of the number of people with brain and central nervous system cancers increased since the introduction of aspartame in 1981, the FDA determined that no such link existed and that the data presented does not prove that aspartame is related to the development of brain tumors. Another, more recent, study by the National Cancer Institute has also failed to show a link between brain cancer and the use of aspartame.

Myth: Diet Soda Causes Lymphoma and Leukemia

Fact: A 2005 laboratory study found that rats fed high doses of aspartame had more incidences of lymphoma and leukemia, particularly in females.  The dose fed to the rats was the equivalent of a human drinking up to 2000 cans of diet soda a day.  The FDA reviewed this study and found inconsistencies in the data, and determined that there was not a link between diet soda consumption and leukemia or lymphoma. The National Cancer Institute also conducted its own study in 2005, involving over 500,000 men and women and did not find a link between aspartame use and blood-related cancers.

Myth: Artificial Sweeteners Cause Stomach and Pancreatic Cancer

Fact: A 2009 study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention reviewed data on over 3000 subjects in Italy and found that neither aspartame nor saccharin contributed to the risk of digestive system cancers, such as stomach or pancreatic cancer.  A study from the 2007 journal Annals of Oncology Advance did relate added sugar intake with the risk of gastric cancer in Italian subjects.

The Bottom Line

Excess consumption of sugar substitutes, such as those in diet sodas and sugar-free sweets, is not recommended, as it likely replaces other healthy nutrients from the diet.


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