Quack Science

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Artificial sweeteners: a pretty sweet deal?


I was in a coffee shop the other day with some friends. Now, I don’t usually like coffee much, and that day I really wasn’t in the mood for coffee’s characteristic bitterness, so as usual I found myself reaching for the sweetener, but as I did my friend stopped me in my tracks: “What are you doing! That has aspartame in it! Don’t you know how bad that is for you?!” After some heated debate and some interesting health stories I eventually opted for sugar. But I was confused, how could something lying on the coffee table in Starbucks be something so dangerous? Surely this is a major health risk? The fact is; it isn’t.

Artificial sweeteners are in just about everything; drinks, sweets, baked foods, hygiene products and medicine. Living in the western world it is safe to assume just about everybody you have ever met has taken artificial sweeteners at some point in their life time and whether you knew it or not, you have probably taken them more than a few times in the last week. Considering sweetener consumption on this scale, is this something we should be concerned with?

Saccharine, aspartame and cyclamate, along with ‘new generation’ sweeteners such as acesulfame-K, sucralose and neotame are just some of the sweeteners on the market. With some of them up to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, and with next to no calories, they are a treasure trove for wild health conspiracies; apparently causing lymphomas, brain and bladder cancers, chronic fatigue syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, autism, and hair loss no less. The debate really started after series of infamous experiments in the 1970’s in which Saccharin was linked to bladder cancer in rats and ever since they have been a source of controversy. Everyday products pride themselves on being ‘free-from artificial sweeteners’ and even TV chefs get in on the action. Needless to say most of them get a pretty bad rep around alternative health websites.

Most sweeteners have been around a pretty long time, the first of which (saccharine) being invented in 1879. This is good for us because it means we have had a long time to test their safety.  Let’s deal with cancer risk first. The fact is that the data shows for the most part they really do not pose a cancer risk. Systematic reviews of the medical evidence in the Annals of oncology and the Comprehensive reviews in food science and food safety all point to the extensive research demonstrating their safety. The medical reviews state there is no evidence to provide a link between everyday sweeteners and cancers.  Even the saccharin experiments in the 70’s were later shown to only shown to cause cancer in rats and that there was no risk to humans.

The matter is considered settled by most relevant authorities, at least in terms of cancer risk, but occasionally there is a rogue scientist that shakes up the issue again with a new paper, and while these so far turned out to be false, they still have to be answered. For example, Morando Soffritti claimed in 2007 he found the sweetener aspartame to be linked with lymphomas and leukemias. After looking into the evidence, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a 44 page report, deciding the study had major methodological flaws which brought into question the validity of the claims. Still, it is still these sorts of papers which are usually taken up by alternative medicine peddlers, who let their beliefs dictate which science they choose to accept. This might explain why you have heard overblown and unsubstantiated rumours about sweetener safety.

What about other health problems? Well there is actually some evidence to suggest that sweeteners can cause other health concerns, however most are minor. There is some evidence increased sweetener consumption may be associated with increased weight gain, but the exact cause it not yet known. Perhaps while sweeteners may not actually contain as many calories as sugar, there are some concerns that they perhaps lull people into associating highly sweetened food with a low calorie intake, leaving us less satisfied, and further making opt for sweet, low-quality food over more nutritious products. Other possible risks are that of polyols, which can cause gastrointestinal discomfort if eaten excessively, and perhaps aspartame being a potential source of phenylalanine, which is harmful to around 1 in 16,000 people with Phenylketonuria, however these are required to be stated on product labels.

So it really is a little bit more complicated than is generally shown in the health mags, and falls far short of the  conspiracy theories put forward by alternative health quacks. As for new sweeteners coming on to the market in the future, I would advise reading the safety evidence, and I will let you look into those yourselves as and when they come up. For now, there is good evidence to say that artificial sweeteners can be eaten in reasonable quantities as part of a healthy- lifestyle. However try to remember it would also be preferable to simply try to eat more nutritious food rather than heavily sweetened drinks and deserts, whether they are filled with sugar or sweetener!

Image Credit: Albuquerque Journal Fit


2 comments on “Artificial sweeteners: a pretty sweet deal?

  1. Engineeringthinking
    July 4, 2013

    It’s good to see topical issues addressed with a scientific approach, backed up by research.

    I offer a caution, however, on relying too much on industry-sponsored research, including non-profit organizations, which are often funded by the industries they purportedly review, and also by “official” government organizations, which also often have close ties to the industries they supposedly regulate. (This is a very old and persistent problem; see Free To Choose by Milton and Rose Friedman.)
    One has to be skeptical of such organizations, otherwise one can fall prey to the logical fallacy called “argument from authority.”

    For example, you reference “Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety,” which is a peer-reviewed online journal of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a non-profit. Sounds impressive, but I was unable to determine their source of funding until I found “Non-Profit Organizations wit Ties to Industry (http://www.cspinet.org/integrity/corp_funding.html), that indicates that IFT receives contributions from Procter & Gamble, USDA, Coca-Cola Company, Kerry Ingredients, Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland Company, and Land O’Lakes, Inc. This does not mean that IFT does not provide good research, but it does mean that IFT is not necessarily objective when reviewing issues that may clash with these and other sponsors. (It would be nice if IFT would clearly state their sources of funding, and the measures they use to ensure no conflicts of interest. Some guidelines for such measures are presented here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1750-3841.2009.01174.x/full.)

    Here’s another example of the corruption of “peer-reviewed” journals: http://earthopensource.org/index.php/news/148-former-monsanto-employee-put-in-charge-of-gmo-papers-at-journal

    Also, calling a sweetener skeptic such as Dr. Mercola a quack is also a logical fallacy. Mercola is either correct or incorrect, based on the evidence. If you have evidence that Mercola’s opinions (e.g. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/06/29/sweet-misery-documentary.aspx ) are incorrect, then that would be a worthy post. Calling him a quack is just another opinion.

    On the other hand, there is certainly a lot of unscientific and misleading info on the Internet, where numerous products of questionable value are hyped. Sorting out the “truth” has become a very difficult challenge. From reviewing several of your posts I’m sure your blog will provide some much-needed guidance in helping to meet this challenge.

    Ed Walker (engineeringthinking.wordpress.com)

    • Andrew Jonathan Balmer
      July 7, 2013

      I completely agree. There are often close links between organisations and the industries they review. Free to Choose is a great example, Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre also makes great reading on the topic. The problem is we can’t all be an expert on every topic in science, so the appeal to authority is justified so long as you have no reason to believe the data is heavily biased.

      Firstly, the review from CRIFS&FS is peer-reviewed, making such bias much less likely, and secondly it references research papers it uses to make its argument. These are from various other reputable and peer reviewed journals and organisations from around the world, as well as including first hand research papers in making its argument. I also referenced other papers in my article showing sweetener safety. So I think an appeal to authority in this case is justified.
      I do however understand where you are coming from. I think that a number of governmental organisations to have strong links to companies they are supposed to be reviewing and this may or may not be with the public’s welfare at heart. I would love to write an article on that topic in future.

      Secondly, even if we managed to show that all these papers were biased, we would still need research that could show sweeteners to be unsafe, and that could still stand up to the scrutiny (bias/corruption/good quality research) we had used to show ones in support of sweeteners were biased. While not knowing whether sweeteners were safe or not may be a justifiable argument to not use them on a public scale (we could probably write a whole book on this), the burdon of proof involved in definitively classing them as harmful would have to be met by anti-sweetener proponents before we could actually say for certain that they are harmful. Otherwise we would simply be left with a kind of ‘sweetener agnosticism’.

      On Dr. Mercola, while I didn’t specifically go into his arguments, I think the data I used provided somewhat of a rebuttal to some of Dr. Mercola’s arguments on the subject (perhaps not the FDA corruption criticisms, but the sweetener safety ones), and so his criticisms are unlikely to have any real grounds. Secondly he does own a leading company selling and promoting alternative health that makes millions, while that of course doesn’t show his argument to be false, if the same argument of possible corruption against my data were to be applied to his, I don’t think he would pass the mark, unless he had other data and arguments to back it up. These arguments would need to first show my data to be false and second meet the burdon of proof I mentioned earlier that sweeteners are unsafe, which I don’t think he manages to do, at least not in the video link. But we would probably have to go into it further to fully comment on his video.

      Thanks for the comments, I really appreciate that you took the time to answer my article. I look forward to seeing future posts on your website also.

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