Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?

24 Feb 2012 by Vanessa, No Comments »

So, I already discussed in last week’s post artificial sweeteners and their potential to cause for weight gain rather than weight loss. This week I want to cover some of the other health risks that may come with regular artificial sweetener use. This topic is one of great debate. I’ll be covering the basics of what our FDA has to say about the safety of several of the most common artificial sweeteeners.

The most serious concern related to artificial sweetener use is the potential increased risk of cancer. In the early 70’s, the development of baldder cancer in rats was linked to saccharin consumption. Further research revealed an increased incidence of bladder cancer in male rats who comsumed high doses of saccharin. However, further studies based on how saccharin works in the body revealed that those findings were specific to rats only. Epidemiologic studies in humans haven’t found any consistent evidence that saccharin use increases the risk of bladder cancer. However, mechanistic studies (studies that examine how a substance works in the body) have shown that these results apply only to rats. (National Cancer Institiute (NCI), 2009).

Aspartame, aka known as Equal, Nutrasweet, etc., has also been evaluated as a potential carcinogen. A 1996 report suggested that aspartame might be implicated in the rise in the number of people with brain tumors between 1975 and 1992. However, upon furhter analysis, it was found that the incidence of brain tumors began to rise 8 years prior to the introduction of aspartame into our food products and the increased rate was in people 70 years and older who were not exposed to the highest doses of aspartame. (NCI, 2009).

A laboratory study suggested that very high doses of aspartame caused an increased incidence of leukemia and lymphoma in rats. Within the study “very high doses” ranged from the equivalent of 8 to 2,083 cans of diet soda per day. However, the rate of cancer did not increase with higher doses as one would expect. (NCI, 2009).

Also,  after evaluating data from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study of over half a million retirees, no increased rated on lymphoma, leukemia, or brain cancer where found with increased use of aspartame sweetened beverages. (NCI, 2009).

Aspartame has also been implicated by many people as the cause of depression, dementia, migraines, and seizures among other ailments. However, no studies have supported these claims. Aspartame breaks down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol, three different amino acids. Aspartic acid is one of the most common amino acids in the human diet however some believe that along with glutamate, aspartic acid can cause excitotoxicity and damage ot brain and nerve cells. However, clinical studies have shown it is impossible to consume anough aspartic acid and glutamte through food sources to achieve toxic levels of the amino acids. (Butchko, et. al, 2002).
The same is true of methanol which is converted to formaldehyde then formic acid (the metabolite thought to be responsible for methanol poisoning) in the body. Again, however, even consuming aspartame in levels considered far above average would only amount to 25% of the amount it would take to reach toxic levels in the body. In fact, common foods like fruit juice raises methanol production more than aspartame consumption. (Butchko, et. al, 2002).
Phenyalanine is an amino acid that is a byproduct of the breakdown on aspartame. Those with phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot properly digest phenyalanine and are advised to avoid aspartame. Again, milk, fruits, and meat products produce higher levels of phenylalanine than aspartame. However, some believe that phyenalanine can disprupt the normal balance of neurotransitters and neuronal symptoms. Again, the amount of aspartame needed to cause toxicity could not be achieved through consumption of food sources. (Butchko, et. al, 2002).
So, how much aspartame does the FDA say is “ok” to consume? The FDA has set the acceptable daily intake (ADI) for aspartame at 50 mg/kg of body weight/day. The ADI for aspartame is the equivalent of a 70 kg (154 lb.) person consuming about 20 cans of aspartame- sweetened beverage or about 100 sachets of tabletop sweetener with aspartame per day. (Calorie Control Council, 2005).
In addition to saccharin and aspartame, three other artificial sweeteners are currently permitted for use in food in the United States:
  • Acesulfame potassium (also known as ACK, Sweet One®, and Sunett®) was approved by the FDA in 1988 for use in specific food and beverage categories, and was later approved as a general purpose sweetener (except in meat and poultry) in 2002.
  • Sucralose (also known as Splenda®) was approved by the FDA as a tabletop sweetener in 1998, followed by approval as a general purpose sweetener in 1999.
  • Neotame, which is similar to aspartame, was approved by the FDA as a general purpose sweetener (except in meat and poultry) in 2002.

Before approving these sweeteners, the FDA reviewed more than 100 safety studies that were conducted on each sweetener, including studies to assess cancer risk. The results of these studies showed no evidence that these sweeteners cause cancer or pose any other threat to human health.(NCI, 2009).

So, we’ve reviewed what the FDA has to say about artificial sweeteners. Now, does that mean we should all go out and load up on “sugar free” goodies and guzzle diet sodas with abandon? Probably not.  Even though there’s no significant data supporting increased cancer/disease risk in humans in relation to artificial sweetener use common sense should tell us all we should avoid frequent intake of substances that have been shown to cause disease in ANY living being. If consumed infrequently, artificial are probably pretty benign, regular intake should be avoided, and it would be ideal to never never consume them. And if you’re wondering, I ain’t no angel so you can bet I’ll be falling onto the infrequent user category.

Butchko, H; Stargel, WW; Comer, CP; Mayhew, DA; Benninger, C; Blackburn, GL; De Sonneville, LM; Geha, RS et al. (2002). “Aspartame: Review of Safety”. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 35 (2 Pt 2): S1–93. doi:10.1006/rtph.2002.1542.PMID 12180494.

 people have claimed these levels of byproducts (namely phenlalanine and methanol) can build up into toxic levels and cause

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