A study of more than 16,000 patients has found no link between sweetener intake and the risk of cancer. This supports a previous ruling by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
The safety of artificial sweeteners has been under scrutiny since the 1970s, when animal studies reported links with some forms of cancer. The studies were criticised because very high doses of sweeteners were used. More recent research in rats found that sweetener intakes similar to those consumed by humans could increase the risk of certain types of cancer. These findings were not replicated in studies of humans. After evaluating these and other studies in 2006, EFSA concluded that no further safety reviews of aspartame were needed and that the acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 40 mg/kg body weight should remain.
The new review, published in the Annals of Oncology, looked at the safety of a number of common sweeteners, particularly saccharin and aspartame. Italian case-control studies conducted over a 13-year period were brought together and checked for associations between sweetener consumption and the risk of developing cancer. Patients with various types of cancers formed the ‘test group’, including those with colon, rectal, oral and breast cancers. The ‘control group’ comprised 7000 patients admitted to hospital for reasons other than cancer.
Dietary assessments were used to compare the intake of sweeteners in each group. No significant differences were found. When individual cancers were considered, it was found that women with breast or ovarian cancer tended to consume fewer sweeteners than controls. In the case of laryngeal cancer, a direct relationship was found between risk and total sweetener intake, although the sample size was relatively small.
The authors concluded that consumption of saccharin, aspartame and other sweeteners did not appear to increase the risk of cancer. Average sweetener intake in Italy is lower than in other European countries, and little data were available for individual sweeteners, or the use of ‘Diet’ drinks. Despite these shortcomings, the study nevertheless makes an important contribution to the debate.
For more information, see Gallus S et al (2007). Artificial sweeteners and cancer risk in a network of case-control studies. Annals of Oncology, vol 18: pp 40-44.
EUFIC related material
Food safety & quality – food additives