Artificial sweeteners are all around us, used by many to reduce added sugar content and corresponding calories while maintaining sweetness.
For decades we have debated the safety of these chemicals. Now, a study published March 24 in PLOS Medicine by researchers from the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) and Sorbonne University Paris Nord, France, suggests that some artificial sweeteners are associated with a increased risk of cancer.
Many food and drink products containing artificial sweeteners are consumed daily by millions of people; however, the safety of these additives has been debated for decades.
To assess the potential risk of cancer-causing artificial sweeteners, researchers analyzed data from 102,865 French adults participating in the NutriNet-Santé study. The NutriNet-Santé study is a voluntary online study launched in 2009 by the nutritional epidemiology research team (EREN). Participants register voluntarily and self-declare their medical history, socio-demographic data, diet, lifestyle and health.
For those of you who follow my columns, you immediately see a red flag in the “self-reporting” aspect of this study. The researchers collected data regarding the consumption of artificial sweeteners from 24-hour food records. After collecting information about cancer diagnosis during follow-up, the researchers performed statistical analyzes to investigate associations between artificial sweetener intakes and cancer risk.
They also adjusted for a range of variables, including age, sex, education, physical activity, smoking, body mass index, height, weight gain during follow-up, diabetes, family history of cancer, as well as baseline energy intake, alcohol, sodium, saturated fatty acids, fiber, sugar, whole grain foods and dairy products. Yes, they have done a very good job of looking at all the other risks associated with cancer.
Researchers found that enrollees consuming higher amounts of artificial sweeteners, specifically aspartame and acesulfame-K, had a higher overall cancer risk than non-consumers. Higher risks were observed for breast cancer and obesity-related cancers. Being overweight or obese is known to increase the risk of at least 13 different types of cancer: postmenopausal breast cancer, colorectal cancer, kidney (kidney cell) cancer, endometrial cancer, thyroid cancer , pancreatic cancer, multiple myeloma, liver cancer, ovarian cancer, esophageal adenocarcinoma, gastric cardia cancer (upper stomach), gallbladder cancer and meningioma (brain tumors).
The study had several important limitations. First, dietary intakes are self-reported. Selection bias may also have been a factor, as participants were more likely to be female, have higher levels of education, and display health-conscious behaviors.
According to the authors, the findings do not support the use of artificial sweeteners as safe alternatives to sugar in foods or beverages and provide important and novel information to address controversies regarding their potential adverse health effects. Although these results need to be replicated in other large-scale cohorts and the underlying mechanisms clarified by experimental studies, they provide important and novel information for the ongoing re-evaluation of food additive sweeteners.
Dr. C. Joseph Bennett is a board-certified radiation oncologist. If you have any topic suggestions or questions, contact him at 522 N. Lecanto Highway, Lecanto, FL 34461, or email [email protected]