Are artificial sweeteners linked to cancer? Health risks of sugar alternatives in new study explained

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Researchers suggested some artificial sweeteners may be linked to a potential increased risk for breast and obesity-related cancers

Consuming some artificial sweeteners may increase the risk of cancer, scientists have suggested.

Experts from the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research, and Sorbonne Paris Nord University, conducted a study and findings suggested that sugar substitutes pose a potential increased risk for breast and obesity-related cancers.

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Some artificial sweeteners may not be a good alternative to sugar, scientists suggest (Photo: Adobe)Some artificial sweeteners may not be a good alternative to sugar, scientists suggest (Photo: Adobe)
Some artificial sweeteners may not be a good alternative to sugar, scientists suggest (Photo: Adobe) | Monika Wisniewska - stock.adobe.

Previous large-scale studies on humans have found no such association and UK experts said no causal link had been found.

If true, the finding would relate to around three more cancer cases per 10,000 people over eight years, according to one analysis of the findings.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has said artificial sweeteners are not harmful within daily limits. For aspartame, the daily limit is equivalent to 12 cans of diet drink.

What did researchers find?

The new research, published in PLOS Medicine, examined data for 102,865 French adults as part of the NutriNet-Sante study.

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Participants in the study self-reported their medical history, diet, lifestyle habits and other health data.

Researchers then assessed artificial sweetener intake from their dietary records and looked at the diagnoses of cancer.

They adjusted for many factors that could influence the findings, such as age, sex, education, exercise levels, smoking, body mass index, height and family history of cancer.

Findings suggested that those who were consuming larger quantities (typically 79mg per day) of artificial sweeteners had a 13% higher risk of overall cancer compared to those having none.

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The findings were strongest for aspartame and acesulfame-K, both of which are approved sweeteners in the UK.

Higher risks were observed for breast cancer (22% increased risk for aspartame) and obesity-related cancers, scientists said.

However, the study had several limitations, including the fact that those who took part in the research were more likely to be women and to be health-conscious.

Researchers said: “Our findings do not support the use of artificial sweeteners as safe alternatives for sugar in foods or beverages and provide important and novel information to address the controversies about their potential adverse health effects.

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“While these results need to be replicated in other large-scale cohorts and underlying mechanisms clarified by experimental studies, they provide important and novel insights for the ongoing re-evaluation of food additive sweeteners by the European Food Safety Authority and other health agencies globally.”

Can artificial sweeteners cause cancer?

Dr Michael Jones, senior staff scientist in genetics and epidemiology at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London, said the current consensus “is that there is no clear evidence that artificial sweeteners cause cancer in humans”, although the issue is frequently looked at.

He said: “The link between artificial sweeteners and cancer reported in this study does not imply causation – it is not proof that artificial sweeteners cause cancer.

“The types of people who use artificial sweeteners may be different in many ways to those who do not, and these differences may partly or fully explain the association.”

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Fiona Osgun, senior health information manager at Cancer Research UK, added: “This large study suggested there’s an association between some artificial sweeteners and cancer, but that doesn’t mean they cause it or that people need to avoid them.

“While the researchers have tried to find out what people were eating and account for other factors that could affect cancer risk, this is a single study that relies largely on self-reports.

“What we eat and drink overall is much more important than one single element of our diet – so aim to eat more fruit, veg and wholegrains, and cut back on red and processed meats and foods high in fat, sugar and salt.”

Dr Duane Mellor, from Aston University, said the findings related to about “three more cases of all types of cancer per 10,000 people over an average of about eight years”.

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He pointed to flaws in the study, adding: “This study does not prove or even suggest that we should go back to sugar and turn our backs on artificial sweeteners or diet drinks.”

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