Common artificial sweetener Aspartame may cause cancer: Should you eat sugar instead?

WHO may soon declare artificial sweetener aspartame a carcinogenic, meaning that it can cause cancer. Here's everything you need to know about the side effects of this artificial sweetener and how it increases the risk of cancer.
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Artificial sweeteners can cause cancer. Image courtesy: Adobe stock
Arushi Bidhuri Published: 4 Jul 2023, 12:00 pm IST
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Artificial sweeteners aren’t exactly everyone’s favourite in the nutrition world. They were first popularized as a healthy substitute for sweets as they help you enjoy sweet treats without making you gain weight. At first, they did seem like the best, but soon research surfaced that stated artificial sweeteners are unhealthy. Over the years, research has made many such claims. Researchers have found that artificial sweeteners cause cancer and present other health risks as well. One of the widely used artificial sweeteners called aspartame is under scrutiny for its possible side effects.

Is the artificial sweetener, aspartame a possible carcinogen?

For the unversed, aspartame is a low-calorie sweetener used in a wide range of food and beverage products as a sugar substitute. It is found in diet sodas, sugar-free desserts, chewing gums, and many other artificially sweetened products. The commonly used sweetener is under scrutiny by cancer experts at the leading global health authority World Health Organization (WHO) for being carcinogenic. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a WHO body is preparing to release a report stating this artificial sweetener is possibly carcinogenic, which basically means having the potential to cause cancer.

artificial sweeteners
Did you know artificial sweeteners can cause cancer? Image Courtesy: Shutterstock

The actual carcinogenic dose of Aspartame is not yet defined, but based on earlier reports, that reflect an overall increased risk of cancers, especially, breast cancer and obesity-related cancers associated with aspartame intake, there is a high likelihood of this statement being true. Hence, it would be advisable to avoid consumption of foods containing aspartame.

However, the classification of aspartame as a possible carcinogen by the IARC does not mean that it is definitively proven to cause cancer. The studies conducted on aspartame have shown mixed results, and some experts argue that the available evidence is insufficient to establish a clear causal link between aspartame and cancer.

Regulatory authorities around the world, including the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), have extensively reviewed the safety of aspartame and have concluded that it is safe for consumption within acceptable daily intake levels. These organizations have considered the overall body of scientific evidence and have determined that the current data does not support the claim that aspartame poses a significant cancer risk.

What are experts saying about aspartame?

Aspartame is likely to be classified as a “possible carcinogen to humans”. There is a significant possibility that this is accurate based on past results that show an overall increased risk of malignancies, especially breast cancer and cancers connected to obesity, associated with aspartame intake. However, the actual carcinogenic dose of aspartame is not yet identified. Hence, it would be advisable to avoid the consumption of foods containing aspartame, says Dr Arushi Agarwal, Consultant Oncologist, at Asian Hospital.

artificial sweeteners and cancer
Artificial sweeteners in foods and drinks can have side effects. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Other artificial sweeteners that may increase cancer risk

Other artificial sweeteners that might increase cancer risk include acesulfame-K, saccharin, cyclamate, and stevia. They have been found to be potentially carcinogenic in certain animal studies or in human studies with small sample sizes only, as per several leading health authorities.

It is important to note that individual responses to artificial sweeteners can vary, and some people may experience adverse effects or sensitivities to specific ingredients. As with any food or additive, moderation and individual tolerance should be taken into consideration, adds the expert.

Should you eat sugar instead of artificial sweeteners?

While it is recommended to limit your intake of artificial sweeteners, it does not make sugar a better option. Consuming sugar can prove to be dangerous for your health. It is recommended to consume sugar as per your recommended calorie intake along with following a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet and exercise, recommends Dr Agarwal. Excess sugar can lead to obesity, which in turn can increase your risk of cancer. Hence, its advised to take sugars as well as artificial sweeteners well within recommended doses as excess of everything may be harmful.

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About the Author

Arushi Bidhuri is a journalist with 7 years of experience in writing, editing, and conceptualizing story ideas across different genres, including health and wellness, lifestyle, politics, beauty, fashion, and more. Arushi has a strong connection in the industry that helps her write concise and original stories as she believes in working towards writing pieces that can enlighten people. ...Read More

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