Very few nutrition related subjects generate as much fear as the sweetener. Somewhere along the line sweetener was outlawed and demonised…people hate it. Frequently people claim that any type of sweetener directly and instantly causes cancer, Gulf War Syndrome, obesity, birth defects, global warming etc etc.
What are sweeteners?
Sweeteners are sugar substitutes created to give a sweet taste without the calories. There are many types of sweetener found in food and drink, the most widely used being sucralose, aspartame and saccharin. These days some form of artificial sweetener is found in thousands of types of consumer products worldwide, which include (but are definitely not limited to) diet drinks, instant coffees, chewable vitamins, yoghurts, mints, cereals, chewing gum….the list goes on.
The big question is; are they actually dangerous?
The short answer is probably not. Sucralose and aspartame are two of the most tested and studied food additives in the history of, well anything. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) described aspartame’s safety as “clear cut”, the UK’s Food Standards Agency approved aspartame’s safety back in the 80’s and have stood by their classification.
So why all the hype?
In my opinion, it’s the result of many poorly constructed animal studies over the years, and their misinterpreted results filtering down to the masses. I’ll outline some examples;
For some reason these flawed ideas about sweeteners seem to hang around, even though time and time again studies have proven their safety (Weihrauch and Diehl, 2004). In 2002 the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food did what I like to think of as the Daddy of reviews on aspartame, they reviewed over 500 papers published between 1988 and 2001 and low and behold…it’s safe.
So will sweeteners cause cancer? No, I would bet my can of diet coke that they will not. As is common in the nutrition world, it is another case of Chinese whispers. Redundant and false information was released to the public many years ago and has been regurgitated and retold like a scary bedtime story. I think the developed world would be a lot less obese if everyone swapped sugar for sweetener.
US FDA Stance on Aspartame – http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2006/ucm108650.htm
European Scientific Committee on Food – Aspartame Review – http://ec.europa.eu/food/fs/sc/scf/out155_en.pdf
FSA Stance on Aspartame – http://www.food.gov.uk/policy-advice/additivesbranch/55174#.UL-mqBzmmux
Olney et al. (1996) – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8939194
Reuber (1978) – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1637197/
Schiffman et al. (1997) – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3657889
Soffritti et al. (2005) – http://george-eby-research.com/html/aspartame-carcinogenic.pdf
Whysner and Williams (1996) – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0163725896000691
Weihrauch and Diehl (2004) – http://annonc.oxfordjournals.org/content/15/10/1460.full
The National Cancer Institute’s stance on artificial sweeteners – http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/artificial-sweeteners