Consumer research has shown that many people have a belief that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame should be feared – with 60% of people in a 2013 study saying they were wary of the sweeteners in diet products. There is also a belief by many that artificial sweeteners can cause cancer. But are these concerns justified?
A recent update by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) gave a round-up of the latest research into sweeteners and whether there is a place for them in a healthy balanced diet. Here we've highlighted the main discussion points and have separated the myths from the facts.
In a 2018 study by Shahab et al, looking at the beliefs of a sample of English people into the causes of cancer – around 30% of people stated artificial sweeteners as a cause.
Fact – Cancer Research UK states that sweeteners do not cause cancer
There was some early research which linked an artificial sweetener with bladder cancer in laboratory studies with animals. But subsequent studies did not find this association, and links have not been made to humans. There is no reason to believe artificial sweetener consumption can or will cause cancer. They are rigorously tested and approved for use in foods by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
The media can often misrepresent research findings, and some reports have suggested that having foods/drinks containing artificial sweeteners can increase our preferences for sweet foods and therefore lead to overconsumption of sweet foods. With the belief being that individuals need to adjust their palate to prefer less sweet tastes.
Fact – Public Health England state that there is little evidence to suggest having sweet foods influences subsequent intakes
A 2018 systematic review of the evidence by Appleton et al, concluded that neither short term nor long term exposure to sweet tasting foods had any impact on food choices afterwards – either to increase or decrease. Therefore it was concluded that there is no need to encourage people to have less sweet food in order to reduce preference and intakes.
As mentioned, there is a belief from 60% of UK consumers that artificial sweeteners should be feared. The concern is that these are 'artificial' and therefore have no place in a healthy balanced diet.
Fact – Some sweeteners are broken into amino acids in our body, so are no more 'artificial' than meat
Aspartame is broken down into two amino acids in our body – which we get from foods such as meat in our diet anyway. Plus sucralose is just a modified version of sucrose. So it's not the case that all 'artificial' sweeteners can't be broken down by our body.
Sweetener use is also well regulated and maximum permitted levels are set. The acceptable daily intake (ADI) is actually 100 times less than the amount animal studies have found to be harmful. So the chances of having a potentially harmful intake when consuming them as part of a well balanced diet are very, very... very slim.
Again, media reports have suggested that drinking low/no calorie artificially sweetened beverages has been associated with subsequent increased calorie intakes, leading to weight gain.
Fact – There is actually evidence to the contrary
Recent randomised control trials by Rogers et al have found that having artificially sweetened beverages versus sugar sweetened one's leads to reduced overall intake across the course of the day. From the research it was concluded that consuming low-energy sweeteners instead of sugar helped to reduce overall calorie intake and therefore body weight.
Low/no calorie sweeteners are perfectly fine to include as part of a healthy balanced diet and could potentially help with managing energy intakes and body weight.
Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.