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A new study suggests there may be a potential link between artificial sweeteners and an increased risk of cancer. Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images
  • Millions of Americans use artificial sweeteners to cut down on sugar and calories.
  • However, a new study has found a link between them and increased cancer risk.
  • Aspartame and acesulfame-K in particular were linked to increased cancer risk.
  • The types of cancers most strongly linked to artificial sweeteners were breast cancer and those related to obesity.
  • Experts recommend limiting foods with either added sugars or artificial sweeteners.

Millions of Americans use artificial sweeteners as an alternative to sugar.

In fact, according to data analysis by statista, 141.18 million Americans used sugar substitutes in the year 2020 alone.

Artificial sweeteners contain no or very low calories so they are often added to foods and drinks with the idea that they will aid in weight loss. They are also used in toothpaste, candy, and gum to add sweetness without the risk of contributing to tooth decay.

While people are generally looking to become more healthy when they consume artificial sweeteners, a large cohort study of more than 100,000 French adults suggests that they may actually not be as good for us as we would hope.

This study, which was authored by Charlotte Debras, Mathilde Touvier, and their colleagues at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (Inserm) and Sorbonne Paris Nord University, found a link between some artificial sweeteners and an increased risk for cancer.

Because the safety of artificial sweeteners has long been a topic of debate, the researchers decided to look into their potential link to cause cancer.

They analyzed 102,865 French adults who were participating in the NutriNet-Santé study.

This study is an ongoing, web-based cohort that was begun in 2009 by the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team.

Participation is voluntary with people self-reporting their medical history as well as sociodemographic, diet, lifestyle, and health data.

Information about artificial sweetener consumption was gleaned from the participants’ 24-hour dietary records.

During follow-up, the team collected information about cancer diagnoses and analyzed it to see if there was any link between artificial sweetener intake and cancer risk.

They adjusted the data for age, sex, education, physical activity, smoking, body mass index, height, weight gain, diabetes, and family history of cancer. They also adjusted it for baseline intakes of energy, alcohol, sodium, saturated fat, fiber, sugar, whole grains, and dairy.

In a joint email between Debras, Touvier, and Healthline, the authors said that their work suggests that regular intake of artificial sweeteners may be associated with increased cancer risk.

They noted that previous observational studies have found links between these two variables. In addition, animal studies have suggested artificial sweeteners might be carcinogenic.

However, their study is the first to investigate associations between the amount of artificial sweetener intake and cancer risk, as well as take into account the different types of artificial sweeteners.

Debras and Touvier said that in particular, they found that the sweeteners aspartame and acesulfame-K were linked to increased cancer risk.

In addition, they saw increased risks in particular for breast cancer and a group of cancers related to obesity, including breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers.

So, what does this study mean for consumers? Should we ditch all artificially-sweetened foods? It may be too soon to tell.

Dr. Mary-Jon Ludy, chair of the Bowling Green State University Department of Public and Allied Health and associate professor of food and nutrition, who was not a part of the study, cautioned that correlation does not equal causation.

“With an observational study design, it is not possible to determine whether high levels of artificial sweetener intake cause cancer, or whether individuals with cancer consume excessively high levels of artificial sweeteners,” Ludy said. “To determine cause and effect, experimental studies are required.”

Dr. Andrew Odegaard, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics with the University of California, Irvine Program in Public Health, who was also not a part of the study, had similar concerns.

He said that certain types of biases are inherent in this type of study so it is not possible to discern whether these results were due to bias or artifacts in the data.

He also pointed out that, overall, only about 3.3 percent of the participants were diagnosed with cancer during the follow up so the relative risks appear “modest.”

“I wouldn’t get too excited one way or the other,” said Odegaard.

Ludy said that currently there is no consensus on which artificial sweeteners are the safest to use, however, she advises that people use moderation and focus on overall dietary quality.

In order to maintain a healthy level of sugar consumption, she recommends making foods like vegetables, fruits, and dairy your priority.

These foods contain naturally-occurring sugars along with vitamins, minerals, and fibers.

In addition, she recommends limiting any sugars that are added in food preparation and processing.

Ludy said that the Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming less than 10 percent of total calories from added sugars.

For a person eating a 2,000-calorie diet, this would translate to no more than 200 calories or 50 g of sugars.

Ludy suggests drinking water or plain milk in lieu of sweetened beverages and using moderation when it comes to sweetened snacks and desserts.

Finally, she suggests comparing labels when grocery shopping.

“Review the ‘Added Sugars’ content on the Nutrition Facts panel,” said Ludy. “Choosing products with lower amounts can be a great way to make healthier choices.”