One of the most controversial nutrition debates is the safety and effects of artificial sweeteners, particularly the common sweetener aspartame. Artificial sweeteners are added to foods and beverages to give flavor, often without calories. The debate usually encompasses two questions:
1) Are they harmful?
2) Are they really calorie free?
In part I of this post, we’ll examine the first question of safety, to help you and your family make the most informed decisions for your health.
Why the Fear?
Safety concerns began in the 1970s when saccharin (the primary ingredient of Sweet ‘N Low) was linked to bladder cancer in lab animals. Congress mandated a label warning on products with saccharin: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” No wonder people were concerned about using Sweet ‘N Low.
Follow-up studies showed these results applied only to rats, due to the physiological differences in human and rodent metabolism, so Congress revoked the warning. Furthermore, rats developed cancer from receiving high doses of saccharin. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) lists an acceptable daily intake to limit people from reaching these doses. These daily FDA limits are:
- 6-19 (19 for most brands) 12oz cans of diet cola
- 9-12 packets of sweetener
- 30-32 12oz cans of diet lemon-lime soda
These daily limits are about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns. Over 100 studies endorse aspartame’s safety for humans within the FDA and World Health Organization parameters.
Cancer Concerns Linger
There are additional studies that suggest possible cancer-causing effects from artificial sweeteners. These studies are in the minority, particularly regarding Splenda and aspartame, and draw conclusions such as “further studies have to be performed.” In 2005, a study from European scientists concluded aspartame caused cancer in rats at low doses. The scientists urged others to reevaluate aspartame’s safety. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) did so, and confirmed aspartame is not a carcinogen. The FDA verified this report based on “more than 100 toxicological and clinical studies regarding the sweetener’s safety.” The EFSA re-evaluated old and new data in 2013 and confirmed its stance.
Aspartame and Brain Damage
Aspartame has been linked to brain disorders such as brain cancer, seizures, learning disabilities, memory loss, migraines, and depression. Dr. Joseph Mercola’s website, one of the most influential critics of artificial sweeteners, lists numerous studies showing destructive consequences, mostly of the brain. Many scientists claim this research is faulty because most of it falls into one of these categories:
1) Demonstrates effects in rodents that cannot be interpreted to show similar effects in humans
2) Shows aspartame intake and brain disorders increasing at the same time in society, but other lifestyle factors could be to blame. Further correlation studies show no harm from aspartame.
3) Uses high intakes unrealistic for human consumption, or has other design flaws
4) Concludes “more research needs to be done”
5) Published in unreliable journals or websites
Who Can You Trust?
Companies that produce and use sweeteners in their products fund most of the research that shows aspartame is harmless. Does their funding affect the research?
Skeptics believe governments and food manufacturers bribe health organizations to support their stance. This theory intimates the top governments, cancer and medical researchers, and even the World Health Organization are purposely endangering the health of all citizens with false information.
Conversely, many aspartame whistle-blowers profit from discrediting the safety evidence. Dr. Mercola sells supplements to “cleanse” the body of these additives and “claims they eliminate your risk of developing cancer in the future.” The FDA has ordered him to stop making false claims. Do aspartame detractors distort the evidence for their own gain?
Reading Between the Lines
Researchers use a “peer-review” process to distinguish credible studies from misleading ones. If a study appears on a website or news media outlets, but is not published in a reputable research-based journal, other experts probably determined it poorly constructed. There are very few peer-reviewed studies that show legal artificial sweeteners directly harm humans.
Examine.com is an independent organization that investigates nutrition and supplementation research. It receives no third-party funding, sponsorship, or donations. Its independent analysis of the research concludes there is currently no good evidence that aspartame, namely diet soda, causes health complications.
What Organizations Have to Say About Sweeteners
US government agencies like the FDA and National Cancer Institute assert that regulated sweeteners are safe. Non-American and International bodies such as the World Health Organization, European Union, Health Canada, and Food Standards Australia New Zealand also claim aspartame is harmless in its recommended doses.
The following non-profit organizations agree artificial sweeteners are safe, or that dangerous claims are unfounded: American Cancer Society; American Diabetes Association; American Heart Association; Mayo Clinic; Academy of Nutrition Dietetics; American Academy of Family Physicians; American Council on Science and Health; Alzheimer’s Association; Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America; National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Some groups suggest people should consume artificial sweeteners in moderation, or that more testing needs to be done to determine the long-term health effects. Very few reputable health organizations state artificial sweeteners and aspartame are dangerous.
The majority of scientifically accepted information shows legal artificial sweeteners like aspartame are safe. If there are dangerous effects, they haven’t been proven yet, just like with many foods and products we use.
It’s important to distinguish media claims and postulated theories from accepted scientific facts. Weigh this information as you see fit to make the best informed decisions for your health and lifestyle.
Stayed tuned for Part II where we examine the purported effects of artificial sweeteners on body fat and diabetes.
Additional Research on the Safety of Artificial Sweeteners