Study Shows Artificial Sweeteners May Lead To Higher Cancer Risk, Questions Remain

Artificial sweeteners are commonly used in packaged food and beverage as substitutes for sugar. These artificially crafted substances have a molecular structure similar to sucrose — commonly called "table sugar," "white sugar," or "granulated sugar" — so they taste just like it but have a significantly lower calorific value. Therefore, sugar substitutes are marketed as healthier alternatives to natural sugar and its derivatives, especially for those who either have diabetes or want to lose or maintain their weight. Despite their advertised benefits, artificial sweeteners have been linked to health concerns, including brain manipulations and higher cancer risk in consumers. A recent study (via PLOS Medicine Journal) tries to correlate cancer hazards with the consumption of artificial sugar substitutes such as acesulfame-K, aspartame, and sucralose.

The findings are part of the ongoing NutriNet-Santé research, an ongoing online study meant to identify the interplay between health and nutrition. The research program began in 2007 and has had members participate in periodic online health surveys.

Aspartame sweetener poses the highest cancer risk

In this particular study on the relationship between artificial sweeteners and the risk of cancer, the research group sought input from more than 102,000 French adults. Based on the data submitted by these users, the researchers developed an understanding that artificial sweeteners, and especially aspartame, pose a high cancer risk among the people who consume them through packaged foods and beverages or as a sugar substitute sold by brands such as Equal and NutraSweet.

Researchers asked participants to upload their 24-hour dietary records to assess their nutritional intake and the amount of sweeteners consumed. The data were segregated based on the participants' age, gender, body-mass index (BMI), level of physical activity, height, weight gain through the timeline of the assessments, and consumption of tobacco products and alcohol. The research also took into account the surveyees' family history of cancer and diabetes and their daily uptake of sodium, saturated fatty acids, fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and whole-grain foods.

Artificial sugar linked to obesity-related cancers

The study suggests consumption of artificial sweeteners increases a person's risk of breast and obesity-related cancers. Previous research has linked the probability of obesity to artificial sweetener consumption, while others have also highlighted an obese person's higher likeliness to have cancer. The study's authors suggest theirs is the first investigation that directly associates the use of sugar replacements with obesity-related cancer risks.

Interestingly, the amount of sugar substitute intake did not directly increase or decrease a person's propensity to get develop cancer. The only difference appears when these substitutes are entirely cut out of the diet. The researchers also suggests the study must be replicated on a larger scale with different demographic groups to verify the concerns around the consumption of artificial sweeteners. Citing the fact that the NutriNet-Santé cohorts are limited to French citizens — with the majority of them being women, the socially, financially, and educationally privileged, and people with more health-conscious behavior — the researchers suggest the need for more comprehensive studies to establish a concrete relation between artificial sweeteners and cancer. They also call upon global agencies to delve into further research primarily to raise awareness among consumers about the ill effects of sugar substitutes, which are present in packaged food and beverages in copious amounts.