Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?



Humans have always had a fondness for sweets. During the world wars, saccharose, (common sugar) was obtained from sugar cane or beets. Saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, was synthesized in 1879, and was popular during the world wars due to its low production cost. After World War II, sugar became more affordable, and since the 1950s, the reason for using saccharin shifted to calorie reduction. However, the bitter after-taste of saccharin produced a growing need for improved taste of calorie-reduced substances.

Artificial sweeteners are classified as first generation (saccharin, cyclamate and aspartame) and new generation (acesulfame-K, sucralose, alitame and neotame).

Cyclamate was introduced in the 1950s, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned it from all dietary foods in 1970, due to suspicion that it induced cancer in experimental animals. Cyclamate is still used in other countries, especially in combination with other sweeteners.

Aspartame (NutraSweet) was approved by the FDA in 1981, and for the first time, “diet” or “light” could be used as a prefix on labels. The new generation of sweeteners developed since then includes: Acesulfame-K, with brand names of Sunette, Sweet One and Sweet n’ Safe. This was approved by the FDA in 1988 and is 200 times as sweet as sugar. Sucralose, with a brand name of Splenda, was approved by the FDA in 1988 and is 600 times as sweet as sugar. Alitame is pending FDA approval in the United States and is 2,000 times as sweet as sugar. Neotame is also waiting FDA approval and is 8,000 times as sweet as sugar.

The correlation between artificial sweeteners and cancer risk has been studied extensively for many years. The summaries of research studies follow.

Saccharin induces bladder cancer in rats when fed in high doses. However, rodents also develop bladder cancer when fed ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) in large doses. Artificial sweetener use that is greater than 1,680 milligrams a day (equivalent to 100.8 liters of soda per day) leads to an increased risk (1.3 times higher than if you didn’t drink 100.8 liters of soda per day) of bladder cancer in humans. There is no evidence that aspartame causes cancer. The new generation sweeteners (acesulfame-K, sucralose, alitame and neotame) have had initial studies completed for safety, but no long-term studies are available. Rats fed artificial sweetener as 5 percent of their diet for 1.5 years had no increased risk of cancer. When mother rats and their offspring were fed saccharin as 7.5 percent of their diets, 30 percent of male rats developed bladder tumors. This study resulted in the ban of Saccharin in Canada. Twenty monkeys were fed 25 milligrams of saccharin (1.5 liter soda equivalent) for 24 years, while 16 monkeys did not consume saccharin. None of the monkeys developed bladder cancer or urothelial proliferations. Researchers in the United Kingdom reviewed 19,709 death certificates between 1966 and 1972 and compared bladder cancer mortality between people with diabetes (who supposedly used artificial sweeteners frequently) and those without diabetes. There was not a significant difference between the two groups. A Danish study could not detect an increase in bladder cancer mortality in people born between 1941 and 1945 when artificial sweeteners were heavily used. Cyclamate in 500 milligram doses per day (the equivalent of 30 calorie-reduced drinks per day) was given to 21 monkeys for 24 years. Three monkeys showed cancer, compared to zero out of 16 monkeys that did not consume cyclamate. The cancers were not bladder cancer, but one thyroid and two uterine cancers. These tumors frequently occur at this rate in monkeys, so the authors couldn’t conclude they were from cyclamate. Aspartame was associated with an increase in brain tumors, but the study received criticism due to the ecological factor (when two events incidentally occur at the same time). In this situation, aspartame was associated with the increased incidence of brain tumors, although there was no information available on the aspartame consumption of the brain tumor patients. Home computers, VCR usage and other factors also increased at the same time. Aspartame consumption was studied in 56 children with brain tumors and 94 children without brain tumors (along with passive smoke and consumption of cured meats). There was no elevated brain tumor risk to the child from maternal consumption of aspartame during pregnancy or lactation. Research concludes that there is no evidence that artificial sweeteners are harmful to your health. Avoiding high doses of artificial sweeteners would be a prudent lifestyle choice (as with any food, nutrient or medication). Finally, as careful consumers, we should review the studies on new generation sweeteners (acesulfame-K, sucralose, alitame and neotame) as they become available.

Posted on 8 Jun 2006

Nedra Christensen
Utah State University Extension Dietician

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