Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer Risk

Do they or don't they? The question of whether artificial sweeteners cause cancer has been hotly debated in the medical community. The conclusion: scientists don't think so. At least, the data collected so far is inconclusive, and does not point to a link.

The Sweet Stuff

There are three primary types of natural sugars: sucrose (table sugar), glucose, and fructose. Honey, maple syrup, molasses, and agave nectar are a few other examples of natural sweeteners.

Physicians blame sugars, especially those in sweetened beverages such as soda, for the obesity explosion in our country. Sugar has become ubiquitous; manufacturers add sugar to almost all processed foods, even foods you would least expect.

Cancer cells need sugar to grow; without sugar, they cannot survive. Numerous studies link both fructose and glucose to an increased risk of cancer, albeit by somewhat different mechanisms. Fructose activates pathways that drive cell division, so cancer cells grow faster than normal, healthy cells. Glucose directly fuels cancer cell growth.

Artificial Sweeteners

Food manufacturers and individuals use artificial sweeteners in place of naturally occurring sugars. On the plus side, most of them have few or no calories, so people who are trying to lose weight may substitute naturally sweetened foods with artificially sweetened foods. Artificial sweeteners tend to be even sweeter than natural sugars, so you need less. And, they generally don't raise blood sugar levels because they are not carbohydrates.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates artificial sweeteners as food additives. It has approved the following artificial sweeteners: 

  • Saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet 'N Low)
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)
  • Acesulfame potassium (ACK, Sweetone, Sunett)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Neotame

Other countries have approved the sweetener Cylamate; however, the FDA has not.

Before you rush out and eat artificially sweetened foods with abandon, you need to appreciate the full picture.

The Not-So-Sweet Truth

Researchers believe that, although artificial sweeteners do not directly add calories to your diet, people tend to eat more foods when they contain artificial sweeteners, so their calorie intake still increases. Eating too much food leads to obesity, which is a significant cancer risk. The increase in obesity in our society coincides with the increase in use of artificial sweeteners.

Furthermore, artificial sweeteners have been linked to an increased risk for other serious health conditions, including diabetes, pre-term deliveries, gout, and migraines.

Your best bet for optimal health and cancer prevention is to limit your consumption of all sweetened food.



National Cancer Institute. "Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer." Web. 5 August 2009. />

Gallus, S., Scotti, L., Negri, E., Talamini, R., Franceschi, S., Montella, M., Giacosa, A., Dal Maso, L., and La Vecchia, C. "Artificial sweeteners and cancer risk in a network of case-control studies." International Annals of Oncology 18 (1) (2007): 40-44. Web. 16 October 2006.