A common myth circulating is that artificial sweeteners are carcinogens, meaning they cause cancers like bladder cancer. This myth may also be extended to products that contain artificial sweeteners, such as diet soda. The idea that artificial sweeteners, or the products that contain them, could cause cancer is based on outdated evidence and has been heavily misconstrued and sensationalized in recent years.
What are artificial sweeteners?
An artificial sweetener is a substance added to foods or drinks in place of sugar. Oftentimes, these artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than table sugar (sucrose), so a smaller amount of these compounds can be added to achieve the same taste. Although artificial sweeteners were originally developed in the mid-1900’s to alleviate sugar shortages, their primary use in today’s culture is for weight loss. Sugar substitutes like Splenda, Sweet’N Low, Equal, and more can help achieve the same sweet taste, while dramatically reducing calories. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the same organization that regulates food, medications, tobacco products, and more, also regulates and approves artificial sweeteners before they are sold on the market.1,2
Where did the idea that artificial sweeteners cause cancer come from?
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s studies were performed on rats to determine the effect of artificial sweeteners, specifically, early artificial sweeteners like cyclamate and saccharin. In these studies, results pointed toward an association between artificial sweetener consumption and the development of bladder cancer, specifically in male rats. This evidence led to the banning of cyclamate in 1969 and the addition of saccharin to the U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens in 1981, indicating that it had the potential to be a carcinogen. Results from these studies, and the FDA’s past actions against these early sweeteners have allowed this myth to continue circulating today.1,2
Is it true?
In the years following these studies, it was determined that the results were not applicable to humans. The development of cancer in humans and rats relies on different mechanisms, and are different processes. Studies involving human consumption of these artificial sweeteners did not demonstrate the same effects as those on the rats, and saccharin (now Sweet’N Low) was delisted from the Report on Carcinogens in 2000, after extensive research. Although cyclamate was not found to be a carcinogen, nor a co-carcinogen (something that enhances a carcinogen’s effect), it is still currently banned by the FDA for reasons unrelated to cancer development.1
In addition to the investigation on these artificial sweeteners, studies have been performed on newer artificial sweeteners as they are being developed as well. The FDA has not approved any newly developed artificial sweetener for the market unless numerous safety studies were completed, including studies that investigated the potential association of a sweetener and cancer development. Sweeteners that made it to the market and showed no signs of being a carcinogen include, but are not limited to:
Aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet)
Acesulfame (ACK, Sunett, Sweet One)
Neotame (a product similar to aspartame and made by Nutrasweet)
Advantame (a product similar to aspartame and made by Ajinomoto)1
Even systematic reviews of studies involving artificial sweeteners, meaning reviews of the results found from a variety of studies across many years, have yet to find conclusive evidence that artificial sweeteners are directly responsible for or contribute to cancer development. Some individual studies have pointed toward associations between artificial sweeteners and certain types of cancer, however, these are generally unsupported by additional research and do not take into account other potential variables. As an example, many individuals using artificial sweeteners are doing so to lose weight. Obesity is a known risk factor for cancer development, and it may be the individual’s weight, rather than their use of an artificial sweetener that could be contributing to this association.2
Where do we go from here?
The decision to consume products with artificial sweeteners is a personal one, and may be done for a variety of reasons or under the guidance of an expert. Suggesting to an individual, especially one who has been diagnosed with bladder cancer, that the use of artificial sweeteners is what caused their cancer is not true, and can be frightening to hear. Although there is still much to be learned about what causes cancer and how we can potentially treat and prevent it, this is one myth that is better left uncirculated.
Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer. National Institutes of Health: National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/artificial-sweeteners-fact-sheet. Published August 10, 2016. Accessed March 7, 2018.
Mishra A, Ahmed K, Froghi S, Dasgupta P. Systematic review of the relationship between artificial sweetener consumption and cancer in humans: an analysis of 599,741 participants. The International Journal of Clinical Practice. 23 July 2015; 69(12), 1418-1426.