Meal Frequency
December 10, 2012


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.

High on sweetener?

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;

  • As a bit of background into the world of lab studies involving mice or rats, ‘high doses’ usually means the poor little animals are literally pumped full of the substance being tested.  This means for a human to get an equivalent dose would be nigh-on impossible.  One aspartame study gave rats the equivalent of 2000 cans of diet soda DAILY (Soffriti et al. 2005).
  •  The initial scare stories about aspartame were initiated by some statistical analysis which suggested that an increase in the incidence of brain tumours in the US between 1975 and 1992 was caused by the introduction of artificial sweetener (Olney et al. 1996).  Some genius somewhere got hold of this information in 1996 and spread the word…”aspartame is the devil!”..or something to that effect.  Unfortunately this happened before anyone took a closer look at the data and realised the incidence of brain tumours began to rise 8 years BEFORE aspartame came on the American market!  By this time aspartame’s reputation was already tainted.
  • One most popular sweetener-bashing studies happened in the 70’s when an increase in the incidence of bladder cancer was seen in rats that were exposed to ‘high doses of saccharin’ (Reuber, 1978). Subsequent studies done since the 70’s have shown that the bladder tumours were caused by a mechanism not present in humans (Whysner and Williams, 1996) – saccharin has since been removed from the giant list of things that are thought to cause cancer.
  • Has she just had a Diet Coke? Or does she really, really need one?

  • Another study I enjoyed was an investigation into the people who reported having headaches after consuming aspartame (Schiffman et al. 1997).  When this group were aware they were consuming aspartame 100% had a headache.  The investigators switched this round so the group didn’t know what they were drinking, then only 35% had a headache after an aspartame beverage compared to 45% having a headache after consuming a placebo!

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
European Scientific Committee on Food – Aspartame Review –
FSA Stance on Aspartame
Olney et al.  (1996)
Reuber (1978)
Schiffman et al. (1997)
Soffritti et al. (2005)
Whysner and Williams (1996)
Weihrauch and Diehl (2004)

Further Reading:
The National Cancer Institute’s stance on artificial sweeteners