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Artificial sweeteners: Dietary saint or sinner?

The use of artificial sweeteners and the health risks they potentially impose is one debate which has sat at the forefront of the diet industry for years.

By Alan Waterman

It probably comes as no surprise that the diet industry is filled with arguments and debates.

Every few weeks, new claims are made based off the latest research which seem to constantly alter our views and help form our opinions on many topics. Still, even after many years, these debates rage on.

As recently as April 2017, where it was suggested that artificial sweeteners increased risk of development of dementia, there is also cancer, diabetes and weight gain which have all been said to be linked to Aspartame (one of the most popular dietary sweeteners,) resulting in much scepticism about the safety of its use. But are these claims unfounded, or is there a genuine cause for concern? Is it just needless scaremongering?

Rather than aiming to cut out artificial sweetners unnecessarily from our diets (a difficult task, based on the prevalence of their use,) let's consider the research...

The biggest, most damning claim against their use is the suggestion of Aspartame's carcinogenic (cancer-causing) properties. In a 1996 study, it was shown to cause increased tumour numbers in adults, while a 2005 study showed a positive increase in leukemia diagnosis.

The first study, however, was soon dismissed due to insubstantial evidence, while the latter studies, although giving positive evidence, were conducted only on rats, without human trials. In fact, the dosages used in the 2005 study, if applied to human subjects, would have required the equivalent of a daily intake of over 2000 cans of diet drinks, a dosage which, in humans, is too unrealistic to be considered a legitimate health risk.

When we also consider that a 2006 study by the National Cancer Institute of over half a million older adults concluded that there was no increased risk of cancer between those who drank diet drinks and those who did not, the evidence against the safety of artificial sweetners doesn't really stack up.

As for dementia, although a link is suggested, there is not substantial evidence to support it. When other risk factors for the illness were considered by researchers (risk genes, cholesterol levels, bodyweight and diabetes,) the correlation  was practically lost.

"But what about weight-gain and insulin?"

Many argue that artificial sweeteners are a large contributing factor to increases in bodyweight and poor control of blood sugars. Again, however, the evidence is not as strong as many make out, as research doesn't quite support the claim.

A six month study conducted between a group consuming calorie-free (sweetener-based) drinks and one consuming a sugar-based drink showed that the initial group lost bodyweight compared to the latter. This should come as no real surprise, given that calorie intake is the biggest determining factor in weight loss/gain- the group which lost weight simply lowered their calorie intake by drinking a zero-calorie drink.

However, the use of sweetener did not prevent this result, and did not limit the ability to lose weight. In fact, there are further studies suggesting the use of diet drinks as an appetite suppressant in obese individuals, not a stimulant.

As for insulin? Yes, studies have shown increased insulin release from consuming sweetners (bad news for avoiding diabetes,) but again, only in studies conducted on rats.

Human trials concluded that there were no significant differences observed on insulin levels between groups consuming diet drinks and those consuming water. Any data shown in extensive "in vivo" studies doesn't replicate the results seen in animal studies. Why? Firstly, because the dosages, when applied to humans, again would become so large as to be unrealistic, and secondly, because our bodies, although sharing some similarities, will process things differently to that of a rat's!

"So, are they safe?"

If we consider the research, outside of the 1 in 10,000 of us who suffer from the rare condition Phenylketonuria (who cannot process the breakdown of Aspartame,) use of diet drinks and sweetener-based products should not be considered a risk to our health, and we should be able able to enjoy them as part of our daily diets.

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