- New data links a higher intake of artificial sweeteners like aspartame with increased cancer risk.
- While evidence shows correlation, not causation, researchers recommend cutting back on sweets.
- Large amounts of sugar and sweeteners are linked to health issues. Dietitians recommend moderation.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
Artificial sweeteners like aspartame may be associated with increased risk of certain cancers, according to a study published Thursday in PLOS Medicine.
Researchers from the Sorbonne Paris North University and French Network for Nutrition and Cancer Research looked at data from 102,865 French adults in the NutriNet-Santé study over an average of eight years of follow-up.
They found that participants who consumed the most artificial sweeteners had a 13% as high risk of developing cancer compared with those who didn’t consume artificial sweeteners.
The sweeteners aspartame and acesulfame-K were associated with the highest risk, according to the data, particularly with risk of breast cancer and obesity-related cancer.
The results show correlation, not causation, and need to be replicated by more large-scale studies, said the study coauthors Charlotte Debras and Mathilde Touvier of the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team at the French Institute for Health and Medical Research and Sorbonne Paris North University.
But there’s a compelling reason to cut back on artificial sweeteners — without replacing them with regular sugar, too much of which is also linked to cancer risk, Debras and Touvier told Insider via email.
“The recommendation is to limit processed foods with either added sugar or artificial sweeteners. This objective must be achieved by reducing the overall sweet taste of food, and this from an early age,” they wrote.
Previous research has suggested artificial sweeteners are generally safe, but evidence on side effects is mixed
Aspartame, the most common artificial sweetener, has faced particularly scrutiny in regard to health risks like migraines and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as cancer, though more than 100 studies have suggested it is safe for the general population, according to the Food and Drug Administration .
Some evidence has linked artificial sweeteners to increased cravings, as well as some of the same risks as plain sugar, including heart disease.
Mixed evidence on artificial sweeteners may be due to imprecise data on the types of sweeteners, foods they’re found in, and cumulative consumption across the diet, according to researchers in the most recent study.
Their study suggested artificial sweeteners shouldn’t be considered a safe alternative for sugar as they may be carcinogenic, a recommendation supported by other observational studies and animal models.
“In line with official recommendations from several public health agencies, these findings do not support the use of artificial sweeteners as safe alternatives for sugar in foods or beverages,” Debras and Touvier wrote.
Artificial sweeteners have grown in popularity during the past decade, research showed, in part because there’s good evidence that too much sugar is linked to a variety of health issues, from liver and heart disease to diabetes risk.
But there may be a misconception that sweeteners are significantly healthier than sugar, dietitians previously told Insider. Whether you should choose added sugar or sweetener can vary based on your health needs, but both should ideally be consumed in small amounts, they said.