Following years of debate and uncertainty regarding the potential negative health effects of artificial sweeteners, a new large-scale study has revealed that consuming these low-calorie food additives may lead to an increased cancer risk. Appearing in the journal PLOS Medicine, the new research indicates that individuals who ingest higher-than-average quantities of sweeteners are 13 percent more likely to suffer from cancer, although certain types of sugar substitutes are more strongly associated with the disease than others.
A huge number of processed food products contain sweeteners, which are designed to mimic the taste of sugar without delivering too many calories. Previous research has failed to establish a robust link between these saccharine additives and cancer, with one large study identifying a connection between table-top sweeteners and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, while another returned contradictory findings.
To settle the debate, the authors of the new study collected daily dietary diaries from 102,865 French adults over an average period of almost eight years. After adjusting for other cancer risk factors such as age, body mass index, physical activity, and fat intake, the researchers found that those who consume high quantities of sweeteners had a higher cancer incidence than non-consumers.
In particular, an artificial sweetener called aspartame was associated with a 15 percent increase in risk for all cancers, and a 22 percent increase in risk for breast cancer. Aspartame was also linked to higher rates of obesity-related cancers, while strong associations were found for another sweetener called acesulfame-K.
Strikingly, cancer rates were just as high in excessive consumers of artificial sweeteners as they were in individuals who consumed above-average amounts of sugar. According to the authors, this “suggests that artificial sweeteners and excessive sugar intake may be equally associated with cancer risk.”
It’s important to note, however, that this study does not provide any evidence for a causal link between sweeteners and cancer, nor does it elucidate any biological mechanism underlying the apparent association between consumption and morbidity. That said, previous in vitro research has indicated that aspartame may promote DNA damage, exacerbate inflammation and inhibit the body’s ability to destroy deleterious cells, all of which is likely to contribute to the development of cancer.
A separate study found that acesulfame-K elicits even more DNA damage than aspartame, while there is also evidence that many artificial sweeteners interfere with gut microbiota. No firm conclusions can be drawn from any of these studies, although it’s easy to see why some scientists have speculated that sugar substitutes may heighten the risk of cancer.
While artificial sweeteners are routinely added to many food products, other natural sweeteners such as stevia are also highly popular among health-conscious eaters who want to go sugar-free. The current study does not address the use of these plant-based alternatives, so the jury is still out on whether these carry any similar health risks.
From the data they’ve seen, however, the authors draw the definitive conclusion that their “findings do not support the use of artificial sweeteners as safe alternatives for sugar in foods or beverages.”