Being Well

Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer: Is There a Link?

Artificial sweeteners offer a highly sweet taste with little to no calories. There's still questions about whether artificial sweeteners and cancer, but there's little evidence to support those fears.

You probably already know that what you eat affects your overall health and your cancer risk. In the grocery store, you see a range of diet products with labels that say diet, sugar free or low calorie, most of which contain artificial sweeteners. Over the past few decades, there remain questions about how safe these additives are.

Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer

Artificial sweeteners approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have been tested and are considered generally safe. These additives are often lower calorie and hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, which is why they’re included in most diet foods.

FDA-approved artificial sweeteners include saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, neotame, and advantame. (Cyclamate is currently prohibited in the United States.) In addition, sugar substitutes, including those made from stevia or monk fruit extract, and sugar alcohols are “generally recognized as safe.” This means they don’t need FDA approval because the scientific evidence and expert opinion suggest these are safe in food and drinks.

The National Cancer Institute says that there’s no clear evidence that artificial sweeteners cause cancer. Aspartame is one of the most studied food additives; after more than 100 studies, there’s been no link to cancer. In the 1970s, studies on rats suggested that saccharin might cause bladder cancer, but the same process that causes cancer in rats doesn’t happen in humans. Further research on humans found no link. In 2000, saccharin was removed from the list of possible carcinogens.

“The FDA has set acceptable daily limits for all artificial sweeteners, which is about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns,” says Carole Havrila, a nutritionist, registered dietitian and certified oncology specialist at UVA. “This translates to drinking about six diet sodas daily or using 20 sweetener packets.”

Are Sweeteners Healthy?

It’s unlikely that there’s a connection between artificial sweeteners and cancer, but that’s not necessarily a green light to switch to diet sodas and cookies. You may need to limit your sugar intake if you have diabetes, or you may need to avoid aspartame if you have certain medical conditions, such as phenylketonuria.

Sugar, or other sweeteners, can be part of a healthy diet. What kind of sweetener you choose to use is based on your health and personal preferences. Lowering the amount of added sugar in your diet is a good idea to promote overall health. Added sugars often come from sweet drinks, snack foods and baked goods — foods that tend to add empty calories and no nutritional benefit.

“Any progress a person can make toward decreasing added sugar and packaged, processed foods limits artificial additives and foods that add little or no health benefit to the body,” Havrila says. “Staying physically active and eating a plant-based diet rich in whole foods is associated with less cancer as well as other chronic diseases.”

Recent research in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism suggests that artificial sweeteners may increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes when consumed regularly. If you’re wondering what’s best for you or need general guidance on how to adopt a healthy diet, consider meeting with a registered dietitian. This professional can walk you through your health risks and help you develop an eating plan that’s delicious and easy to fit into your lifestyle.

A diet that limits processed foods may decrease your cancer risk. Meeting with a nutritionist or dietitian can help you sort out what to eat to protect your health.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney