Are artificial sweeteners a cancer risk?

Whether your goal is to eat healthier or cut the calories, artificial sweeteners are readily available in stores to help you achieve your goal. As with most things in life, however, artificial sweeteners have their own advantages and disadvantages. One of the biggest concerns about them is that the sweeteners are a cancer risk. But, are artificial sweeteners really bad for your health?

Understanding sugar substitutes

Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes that are often manufactured from naturally occurring substances, such as herbs and regular sugar itself. The sweeteners are also known as ‘intense sweeteners’ because they are usually many times sweeter than regular sugar.

Today, artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes are present in all varieties of foods and beverages, including ice cream, soft drinks, yogurt, chewing gum and even fruit juice. The sweeteners are typically marketed as "diet," "sugar-free” or "natural," which raises questions on interpretation of the bold claims.

The problem with labeling artificial sweeteners "natural" is that the sweeteners are actually processed or refined sugars, as is the case with stevia preparations. Stevia is a herb that is native to South America with leaves that contain compounds that give it sweetness. Stevia is processed and sold as a sugar substitute.

Possible health benefits of artificial sweeteners

One of the key benefits of artificial sweeteners is that they don’t cause teeth cavities and decay like ordinary sugars often do. Moreover, artificial sweeteners help with weight loss and weight control because they have virtually no calories. In addition, artificial sweeteners have been shown to be a good alternative to regular sugar for people who have diabetes.

Possible cancer risk and other health concerns

The biggest concern about artificial sweeteners is that they can cause a variety of health problems, ranging from allergic reactions to premature births and cancer. The cancer risk concern originates from studies conducted in the 1970s, which linked saccharin to bladder cancer in lab rats. Modern studies, however, paint a different picture of the link between artificial sweeteners and cancer.

Artificial sweeteners don’t cause cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies like Britain’s Food Standards Agency, there is no conclusive, scientific evidence that artificial sweeteners are a cancer risk or that the sweeteners cause other serious health problems. The controversial sweetener, aspartame, for example, was cleared by European food experts as 'safe for human consumption.’

Dr Alicja Mortensen, chairman of the expert panel that worked on behalf of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), was categorical. He said the EFSA report is “a step forward in strengthening consumer confidence in the scientific underpinning of the EU food safety system and the regulation of food additives.’

Despite the EFSA report, some food experts still insist artificial sweeteners are dangerous to your health. These dissenting voices accuse the European experts of being biased in favour of the food industry. As a consumer, you should probably avoid consuming artificial sweeteners at least until there is a consensus among the experts on the general safety of sweeteners.

If you would like more information on artificial sweeteners, contact the National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov) or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (www.fda.gov).

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