Science and the giant rubber duck… He's watching..
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
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