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Do Sugar Substitutes Cause Cancer?

Posted by Joan Salge Blake  November 2, 2012 01:01 PM

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Source: Nutrition and You
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the latest position paper by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the body of research evidence to date suggests that none of the commercially available, no-calorie, sugar substitutes -- saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium -- are associated with an increased risk of cancer when consumed at the acceptable daily intake level established by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA).  So where did this concern about sugar substitutes and cancer start?

Depending upon your age, you may recall that in the 1970’s and up until 2000, those little pink sugar substitute packets, which were found in restaurants and coffee shops had to carry a warning on the label stating that….“This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”  At the time, studies showed that when rats were given high doses of saccharin, the critters had an increased risk of bladder cancer.  In 2000, the warnings on the labels stopped when, after an extensive review of the research, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences determined that the mechanism that caused bladder tumors was unique to rats and not relevant to humans.  The lesson learned was:  though you can safely consume saccharin in moderation, you should not feed it to your pet rat.

So what’s the relationship between other commercially available sugar substitutes and your health?  Read on for the latest from NCI and AND:

Aspartame (NutraSweet®, Equal®)
Source: Nutrition and You
Aspartame is composed of aspartic acid and phenylalanine, two amino acids found in proteins.  Aspartame actually contains 4 calories per gram, but because it is approximately 200 times sweeter than table sugar, only a tiny amount is needed to satisfy a sweet tooth so is considered calorie-free.  Contrary to the enormous Internet buzz about its potential ill effects, the research evidence to-date has not found any association of its consumption and cancers of the brain or blood nor any neurological issues, such as seizures, headaches, memory loss, and mood changes.
Those with the genetic disorder, phenylketonuria, cannot properly metabolize phenylalanine so must moderate the amount that they consume of this amino acid from all food sources. Phenylalanine is found in protein-rich foods such as meat, eggs, milk, and nuts.

Sucralose (Splenda®)
Approved as a sweetener in 1998 by the FDA, the majority of sucralose you consume is not absorbed by the body but rather excreted unchanged in your stool.  The small amount that is absorbed is excreted in your urine.   Sucralose is 600 times as sweet as sugar so a little goes a long way.  According to NCI and AND, there isn’t any research evidence that sucralose is associated with increased risk of cancer or any other adverse effects in the general public.

Acesulfame Potassium (Sweet One®, Sunett®)
After completing more than 100 safety studies, the FDA approved acesulfame potassium as a sweetener in 1998.   Also known as acesulfame K (the K stands for potassium), this no-calorie sweetener is a combination of an organic acid and potassium and is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Since your body does not metabolize acesulfame K, it doesn’t contain any calories. 

Stevia (Truvia®, Sweetleaf®)
The newest addition to the world of sugar substitutes is stevia, which contains an extract from the plant Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni.   This zero-calorie sweetener is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar.  It doesn’t affect blood glucose levels so can be used by those with diabetes.

The Take-Home Message:  All of these sugar substitutes have been approved by the FDA for use by the public.

                                              Follow Joan on Twitter at:  joansalgeblake
Originally published on the blog Nutrition and You!.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, is a clinical associate professor and registered dietitian at Boston University in the Nutrition Program. Joan is the author of Nutrition &You, 2nd Edition, More »

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