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Do Artificial Sweeteners Increase the Risk of Cancer?

By Jiri Kaloc

As cyclists, we intentionally consume extra sugar in the name of performance, recovery or a simple reward after a hard ride. We know that a lot of sugar might be unhealthy or, at the very least, bad for our teeth. So, is it worth replacing some sources of sugar outside of cycling with artificial sweeteners? Are they safe?

Artificial sweeteners approved as safe to use

Historically, research on artificial sweeteners discovered no link between them and cancer. A study from 2007 that followed 9,000 participants for 13 years found no link between artificial sweeteners and the risk of developing various types of cancer. Similarly, in 2015 a review of studies that included nearly 600,000 participants combined did not find a link between cancer risk and artificial sweetener consumption.

Even institutions such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) deemed most artificial sweeteners safe to use as food additives. Even the controversial aspartame was proclaimed safe for the general population including infants, children and pregnant women by EFSA in 2013.

New research brings back doubt

A new study published in PLOS Medicine in March 2022 adds to the discussion about artificial sweeteners. Researchers from the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research decided to evaluate the potential carcinogenicity of artificial sweeteners by analyzing over 100,000 French adults participating in the NutriNet-Santé study.

They found that participants consuming larger quantities of artificial sweeteners, particularly aspartame and acesulfame-K, had a 13% higher risk of overall cancer compared to those that did not consume any artificial sweeteners. They observed the highest likelihood of developing breast cancer and cancers related to obesity. The authors went so far as to call for major institutions to reevaluate their positions on the safety of these sweeteners.

“Our findings do not support the use of artificial sweeteners as safe alternatives for sugar in foods or beverages and provide important and novel information to address the controversies about their potential adverse health effects. While these results need to be replicated in other large-scale cohorts and underlying mechanisms clarified by experimental studies, they provide important and novel insights for the ongoing re-evaluation of food additive sweeteners by the European Food Safety Authority and other health agencies globally,” said the lead author Charlotte Debras.

Should you avoid artificial sweeteners?

It’s always to keep a cool head when new studies come out. It’s rarely the case that one study completely changes the totality of research done so far. But if you want to take a precaution before further research clarifies this, then you can simply look at food labels and avoid anything that includes aspartame and acesulfame-K (also marketed as Sunett, Sweet One or under the number E950). These two seemed to be the most problematic sweeteners according to the new study. Avoiding these two still leaves you with other popular options such as stevia or erythritol.