Artificial sweeteners are found everywhere, from the humble chewing gum to a huge range of bodybuilding supplements. Consequently, it would be nice to know whether or not all this is actually bad for our health. This article would take a quick look through scientific literature to summarise the findings of the safety of artificial sweeteners.
What Are Artificial Sweeteners?
Sugar is tasty, there's no doubt about it. But high sugar foods are not exactly something that is generally considered to be "healthy". This is where artificial sweeteners come in. They are compounds developed that provide sweetness, but at only a fraction (or none) of the calories. Some common artificial sweeteners include aspartame, saccharin, cyclamate, sucralose, and sugar alcohols. Artificial sweeteners can be 100% artificial, while others are derived from natural compounds. For more details on artificial sweeteners in general, please read our "Sugar & Artificial Sweeteners" article.
Do Artificial Sweeteners Cause Cancer?
You may have heard a lot that artificial sweeteners can cause cancer. Although this is technically true, it is extremely unlikely. Various scientific reviews have looked at the safety of artificial sweeteners, and they all come to the same conclusion: artificial sweeteners are safe (Weihrauch & Diehl, 2004; Kroger et al, 2006; Gallus et al, 2007).
Saccharin is the oldest and most well studied artificial sweetener available. Decades ago, evidence emerged that it may cause bladder cancer. Consequently, Canada banned its use in their foods. However, what the Canadians didn't seem to take note of was that the evidence was based only on rat studies, in which animals were fed absolutely massive amounts (around 5% of their diet) of saccharin for up to 1.5 years (Weihrauch & Diehl, 2004). Let's put that into perspective. For a human eating around 1 kg food/day, that's around 50 g saccharin/day. For any human to eat that much saccharin, especially considering how sweet saccharin is (300 times sweeter than sugar), is beyond ridiculous. That would equate to the sweetness of up to 15 kilos of regular sugar. You don't need me to tell you that much sugar is more than unnecessary. Furthermore, it is known that rodents are more sensitive to compounds such as saccharin compared to humans (Weihrauch & Diehl, 2004). Therefore the potentially toxic dosage may be even higher for people. A study slightly closer to home was conducted with monkeys consuming the equivalent of a 70 kg human drinking 1.5L of saccharin sweetened soft drink per day for 25 years. It was found that the test monkeys were no more at risk of cancer compared to control animals (Jacobson et al, 1998).
Cyclamate is the world's second artificial sweetener, and like saccharin, was another that has caught some flak over the years because it was suspected to be carcinogenic (cancer causing). Originally it was banned by some countries such as the USA and UK. However, after a review of scientific information by the FDA, WHO, and the EU, it was concluded that cyclamate is safe and not carcinogenic. Consequently, it was reintroduced into the food market (Weihrauch & Diehl, 2004).
Aspartame was the third artificial sweetener to be used in food. Unlike the first two, it was never suspected for being carcinogenic. However, one article did draw a possible link between aspartame and brain cancer (Olney et al, 1996). As a result, the media had a field day and began their fear mongering campaign and slapped a bad name on Aspartame. However what wasn't immediately clear to the media was that the Olney et al (1996) publication was full of holes and has since been slammed by the scientific community (Weihrauch & Diehl, 2004).
Regardless of safety data, this artificial sweetener and the ones above are becoming phased out, as "new generation" sweeteners have taken over. They provide a better flavour, closer to that of sugar. These are of course, no less safe for use.
Sucralose is considered a new generation sweetener, and is probably one of the most popular currently on the market. Therefore, it is important to establish its safety. Just like the other artificial sweeteners mentioned above, sucralose has been deemed to be safe. Studies using both humans and animal models show that sucralose does not cause cancer. It has been marked as safe for by children, during pregnancy, and for a life time (Grotz & Munro, 2009). Really, the only adverse effect sucralose had in animal studies was the observation that rats disliked the taste of diets containing extremely high concentrations of sucralose (Grice & Goldsmith, 2000). This is understandable as sucralose is 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, and large amounts would make foods unpalatable.
On ingredient labels, you may have noticed things like sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, and other words with the -ol suffix. These are sugar alcohols. Unlike the other artificial sweeteners listed above, these are roughly as sweet as regular sugar (sometimes less), and are designed to replace sugar on a 1 to 1 ratio. Much like other sweeteners, sugar alcohols are very safe for consumption. Additionally, because they are poorly digested, they contain only a fraction of the calories of sugar. However because sugar alcohols are eaten in quantities just as large as regular sugar, its poor digestibility may be an issue for some people. This poor digestibility actually has a very similar effect to dietary fibre (Kroger et al, 2006). These effects are generally mild for most people and include digestive upsets. Quite often on foods that contain sugar alcohols, a warning label can be found that says something like, "excess consumption may have a laxative effect". If you are sensitive to sugar alcohols, you can start with smaller doses and gradually increase intake to build tolerance.
Benefits of Artificial Sweeteners
There are actually more benefits than potential down sides to artificial sweeteners. Many artificial sugars are zero calorie, as they are poorly digested or not at all. Some artificial sweeteners such as aspartame do, by weight, contain the same amount of calories as sugar. However, these are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, which means that only tiny amounts are used, and the end result is next to zero calories. This has obvious benefits for weight and fat loss. Artificial sweeteners also tend not to illicit an insulin response, which is important for diabetics. Finally, unlike regular sugar, artificial sweeteners do not cause tooth decay.
Artificial Sweeteners in Supplements
In Australia, sucralose is probably the dominant artificial sweetener found in many types of protein supplements including protein bars, mass gainers, WPIs, blended proteins, fat loss proteins, and hydrolysed whey protein. With artificial sweeteners so ubiquitous, it's good peace of mind to know that what we're eating is not only harmless, but actually beneficial. But remember, just because something is safe, doesn't mean you should over do it. Just like how regular sugar is "safe" to eat, it doesn't mean you should be eating loads of it. The same is true for pretty much any thing, even artificial sweeteners. Also keep in mind that you rarely will be eating artificial sweeteners by itself. Consider the health effects of the other ingredients too (eg. fat, carbs, vitamins etc), whether they be natural or artificial.
Gallus et al (2007), Artificial sweeteners and cancer risk in a network of case–control studies. Ann Oncol, 18: 40-44
Grice & Goldsmith (2000), Sucralose—an overview of the toxicity data. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 38: 1-6
Grotz & Munro (2009), An overview of the safety of sucralose. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 55: 1-5
Jacobson et al (1998), Long-term feeding of sodium saccharin to nonhuman primates: implications for urinary tract cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst, 90: 934-936
Kroger et al (2006), Low-calorie Sweeteners and Other Sugar Substitutes: A Review of the Safety Issues. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 5: 35-47
Olney et al (1996), Increasing brain tumor rates: is there a link to aspartame? J Neuropathol Exp Neurol, 55: 1115-1123
Weihrauch & Diehl (2004), Artificial sweeteners—do they bear a carcinogenic risk? Annals of Oncology, 15: 1460-1465