New findings on artificial sweeteners and cancer reviewed by a dietitian

Artificial sweeteners contain no or very low calories so they are often added to foods and drinks as a replacement for sugar. They are used in a range of products from diet drinks to toothpaste. The general consensus is that they are safe for human consumption. However, new research has surfaced. Read my summary and take home advice below.





What is this research?


French researchers analysed 102,865 French adults that participated in the NutriNet-Santé study. This is an ongoing study, since 2009. Researchers collected dietary recalls on participants to determine their intake of artificial sweeteners. During follow-up, cancer diagnoses were also collected. This is called an observational study.


Whilst this isn’t the first study to look at the relationship between artificial sweeteners and cancer, this is the first to investigate the amount and type of artificial sweetener intake in relation to cancer. The researchers also adjusted the data for various demographics, cancer history and dietary factors (such as alcohol and fibre which can increase or reduce cancer risk).



What did the researchers find?

  • Regular intake of artificial sweeteners may be associated with increased cancer risk

  • Of all artificial sweeteners, aspartame and acesulfame-K were linked to increased cancer risk

  • Cancer specific: an increase in risks in for breast cancer, colorectal, and prostate cancers. These are associated with obesity.


What does this research mean?


Observational studies cannot confirm that artificial sweeteners cause cancer. Also it is inevitable that some of these participants would have sadly been diagnosed with cancer regardless. Therefore, the relative risk is actually modest. There can also be bias in these studies, for example dietary recalls are prone to recall bias. This may distort results making them less reliable.


Observational research can be extremely useful, but it would be valuable to see this research repeated. This can expose similarities and differences in response, in different settings and populations. Experimental studies are needed to determine cause and effect.


It would also be great to see these findings compared to that of sugar and cancer risk.



TAKE HOME ADVICE

  • As per my usual recommendations, try to use artificial sweeteners as you would added sugar. There’s still no need to stop altogether.

  • Practice using them less often. Our taste buds regenerate every ~10 days, meaning sweet preferences will adapt

  • If you’re having lots of artificial sweeteners, ask yourself why? Are you restricting other foods or calories? This restriction may explain sweet cravings. Try having less of the “real” thing or make an alternative.

  • Focus on eating lots of plant-based foods, which are associated with reduced cancer risk.

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