The Harms of Artificial Sweeteners: What You Need to Know and What You Can Do

Artificial sweeteners are popular for those looking to reduce their sugar intake, reduce calories, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. However, recent research raises concerns about the safety of these sweeteners, particularly in relation to their potential link to cancer. The evidence linking aspartame (aka, NutraSweetEqual, and Canderel), in particular, to our health is so concerning that in July 2023 it will be listed as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer research arm. The final nail in the coffin came from a recent large cohort study conducted in France that revealed some alarming findings.

The study, conducted over a period of 12 years and involving more than 100,000 adults, examined the associations between artificial sweetener intake and cancer risk. The researchers focused on three commonly used sweeteners: aspartame, acesulfame-K (aka, Sunett and Sweet One), and sucralose (aka, Splenda). By analyzing dietary records and using statistical models to adjust for various factors, they found that individuals consuming higher amounts of artificial sweeteners had a higher risk of overall cancer compared to non-consumers. Specifically, aspartame and acesulfame-K were associated with an increased risk of cancer. Furthermore, the risks were found to be particularly elevated for breast cancer and obesity-related cancers (e.g., gastrointestinal, ovarian, endometrial, kidney, etc.) among artificial sweetener consumers.

Although these types of observational studies cannot determine true causality, the researchers conducted sensitivity analyses to address some concerns and validated their results. There is also extensive mechanistic animal data linking the use of aspartame to cancer risk.

If the possible risk of cancer was not enough, the WHO also advises people to not use non-sugar sweeteners for weight control, as evidence suggests that use of non-sugar sweeteners does not help in reducing body fat in the long run for adults or children. Added to this are the potential undesirable effects from long-term use of non-sugar sweeteners, such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and mortality in adults. There are those who will say the harms of aspartame are exaggerated and that you need to consume copious amounts over a lifetime to result in harm. Yet that still acknowledges that aspartame is not healthy per se. Perhaps it is prudent to try and avoid consuming a “possible carcinogen” when there are so many healthy alternatives.

What can consumers do?

While further research is needed to confirm the findings and establish a clear cause-and-effect relationship, it is prudent for consumers to be cautious when consuming artificial sweeteners. Opting for natural sweeteners like stevia, honey, or fruit can be a healthier alternative. Here are three healthy alternatives:

  1. Fruit Infused Sparkling Water: Instead of reaching for diet soda, consider infusing sparkling water with fresh fruits, herbs, or vegetables for a refreshing and flavorful beverage. You can add slices of citrus fruits like lemons, limes, or oranges, along with berries, cucumber, mint leaves, or even herbs like basil or rosemary. The natural flavors infuse into the water, providing a delicious and healthy alternative.
  2. Sparkling Water with a Small Amount of Cold-Pressed Juice: Cold-pressed juices are made by extracting the liquid from fruits and vegetables without adding heat. They are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Look for juices that are 100% fruit or vegetable juice without any added sugars or preservatives. You can either make your own at home using a juicer or find reputable brands that offer cold-pressed juices in stores or juice bars. Add 1 ounce of fresh fruit juice to 11 ounces of soda water.
  3. Iced Herbal or Green Tea: Iced herbal or green tea can be a refreshing and healthy substitute for diet soda. Brew a pot of herbal tea, such as chamomile, mint, or berry flavors, or green tea and let it cool. You can also chill it for a refreshing iced tea option and/or add to sparkling water.

All three options provide a hydrating and safer alternative to diet soda. Cheers!

Image credit: Mikhail Nilov