Q & A Thursday: what's the truth about artificial sweeteners?
Posted by kathryn in Uncategorized
Today in Q & A Thursday, we’re entering the murky world of artificial sweeteners. Big pavlovalova has asked:
Do artificial sweeteners contain carcinogens? Also, can they cause diabetes by fooling the brain that a sugar rush is on its way, prompting it to produce insulin?
Hmm, big question, so deep breath . . .
The controversy around artificial sweeteners.
The debate about artificial sweeteners has at times resembled the hysteria around soy. If you google the subject, hundreds of thousands of hits come back, the majority warning of danger and that artificial sweeteners can kill.
Almost since they were first released there has been controversy about artificial sweeteners, particularly aspartame and saccharin. Early studies in rats, indicated aspartame could cause brain tumors and lymphatic cancers, while saccharin was linked to bladder cancer. However, these early studies were in no way conclusive. The tests were performed using massive, unrealistic doses of artificial sweeteners, over short periods of time. The mechanism by which saccharin caused cancer in rats was not found in humans and so on. Population studies which have linked artificial sweeteners to an increased risk of cancer have relied upon people’s memory and estimates of their diet, which is never reliable.
In contrast, the standard medical and health body response is that artificial sweeteners have been extensively tested, approved for use and so they’re safe.
Do they cause cancer?
To be honest with you, I lie somewhere in the middle of those two. I think the early studies have been discredited. However, in the last year results from new research has again cast doubts on the safety of artificial sweeteners. A group of cancer researchers in Italy have been running long-term studies into the effects of aspartame on rats, with results showing a link between aspartame and cancer, as well as other health problems.
The doses used were still higher than humans would normally consume, however it’s been enough for some bodies to call on the US FDA to re-consider the approval of aspartame. If the US were to ban it’s use, we would almost certainly follow suit.
The diabetes risk
There has also been recent research which links diet soda use to cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. There are various theories about why this may be:
- because people are drinking “diet” drinks and “being healthy”, they compensate by eating more food in general, and more junk foods
- the sweetness of diet soft drinks makes a person more likely to continue eating other sweet items
- the caramel colour in soft dinks may promote insulin resistance, leading to weight gain and reduced insulin sensitivity
At the moment it has not be proven that diet soft drinks cause metabolic syndrome, diabetes or heart disease, but there is an association between the two.
Why do aspartame products have a health warning “Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine”
Phenylalanine is an amino acid, it’s one of the building blocks of protein and we need it in our diet. However it’s toxic to people with a very rare disease called phenylketonuria, which affects one in 15,000 people. People with phenylketonuria are unable to break down phenylalanine and so it can build up in their bodies, causing brain damage. Phenylketonurics are put on special restricted diets to minimise their intake of phenylalanine and enable them to live normal lives – hence they need to know about food products that contain phenylalanine.
Given it’s an amino acid, phenylalanine naturally exists in a wide range of foods, including eggs, milk, meat and so on.
Is it safe to include artificial sweeteners in your diet?
I tend to agree with Ravi Dhingra, one of the doctors who conducted the diabetes research:
“Moderation in anything is the key. If you are drinking one or more soft drinks a day, you may be increasing your risk of developing metabolic risk factors for heart disease.”
It has not been proven that artificial sweeteners will cause cancer, diabetes or metabolic syndrome. At the moment tthe links are possible and need to be investigated further. We’re also unsure at what dose it will cause a problem. However, I think there is enough evidence to be concerned about their affects on your health and to limit your intake of artificial sweeteners.
The odd diet soda is unlikely to be a problem, but I recommend avoiding regular, daily use. A few times a week is okay, but for your long term health your daily liquid intake should be water.
This post is part of Q & A Thursday – a weekly burst of blogging, where you get to dictate the subject matter. Q & A Thursday is all about simple, practical and sensible answers to food, diet and health dilemmas sent in by readers. If you have a question you’d like answered, then either leave a comment or send me an email.