We are constantly bombarded with products advertised as “sugar-free” or “light”, but for many of us, in the back of our minds at least, we wonder if these options are safe or healthier than sugar. Can artificial sweeteners lead to cancer? Will they help me keep my weight under control?
While there are still many unknowns, and the subject is full of controversy, by reviewing the best research over the past 4 decades, we can come to some conclusions to help you with these questions.
Artificial sweeteners started to get a bad reputation in 1970, when a study showed that rats fed the artificial sweetener cyclamate had an increased risk of bladder cancers. Later, the same risk was attached to saccharin, the oldest artificial sweetener. Then in 1996, a report was published questioning whether the relatively new sweetener, aspartame, was responsible for the increased rate of brain tumors in humans.
Each of these original studies shocked not only the medical community, but also led to artificial sweeteners developing a bad reputation among consumers. Since these original studies, many more studies were done around the world, and the strong overall scientific consensus is that none of these sweeteners lead to cancers in humans.
Rats tend to be particularly susceptible to bladder tumors, and many other substances cause an increase in rat bladder tumors as well, but what happens in the rat, as far as this tumor is concerned, does not translate to human beings. And the risk of brain tumor with aspartame was also debunked.
Since aspartame, various other newer sweeteners were developed (some are sold as being more “natural” since they are derived from sugar), and these have all been extensively studied and debated and the scientific consensus is the same. According to the National Cancer Institute (National Institute of Health, USA) “The results of these studies showed no evidence that these sweeteners cause cancer or pose any other threat to human health.”
Besides cancer, the other big controversy about sweeteners is that, since they have zero or (in the case of some newer sweeteners), only a few calories, we might expect that they will help us lose weight. The problem is that the research on this is very mixed: some studies show they help in weight control, and other studies show the opposite—and that people who convert to artificially sweetened sodas and fruit juices actually gain weight.
This issue has puzzled scientists, but last year, a research report from Israel might have the answer. These scientists found that, in animal studies, that artificial sweeteners may be altering the microbiome of our intestines—the delicate balance of bacteria that live in our intestines that help us digest food. The authors suggest that sweeteners may facilitate the growth of bacteria that cause greater absorption of higher calorie foods, leading to weight gain.
It seems to be that only some people might have this problem, and you might see for yourself how your body reacts to artificial sweeteners: if you gain weight with them, limit or avoid them completely.
An additional issue for some people seems to be that when they eat artificially sweetened foods and beverages, that their brain doesn’t get the signals that they have eaten enough, so they end up eating more of other foods to compensate.
So the bottom line message about sweeteners is that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that they do not increase your risk of any cancer, but, if you use them, you might not lose weight, and some people can even gain weight with their use. In our next post we discuss using sugar instead, and leave you with some suggestions on what you can do.
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