Artificial sweeteners are touted as an alternative to sugar – but research casts doubt on their safety

The safety of artificial sweeteners has been debated for decades, but new research is reigniting concerns about their potential health impacts.

Researchers behind a large-scale nutritional study in France claim to have found associations between the consumption of artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and sucralose, and cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The NutriNet-Santé study, which included more than 100,000 participants, is among the largest of its kind and the first to quantify the amount of sweeteners consumed, they say.

« This is an important step – another brick on the wall – regarding the weight of evidence that we would form together regarding artificial sweeteners and health, » said Mathilde Touvier, head of the nutritional epidemiology research team at the National Institute of Health and Medicine. Research and one of the study’s authors.

Nonnutritive sweeteners, as they’re called in nutritional science, are intensely sweet – hundreds of times sweeter than sugar – and loved by many for delivering the taste of sugar without the calories. And as the long-term effects of too much sugar become better known, artificial sweeteners are also being considered as an alternative.

LISTEN: Registered Dietitian Leslie Beck on reducing the consumption of artificial sweeteners:

The dose16:06Is it time to cut out artificial sweeteners?

While diet sodas might be the most obvious source, artificial sweeteners are found in all kinds of common foods, including yogurt, baked goods, and even ketchup.

Previous studies have shown that sugar substitutes can alter gut microbiomes and raise blood sugar. Other studies have even suggested they may cause weight gain, although this has been disputed.

« There really is growing evidence to challenge the assumption that artificial sweeteners are metabolically inert substances. And I think these findings should give us pause, » said Leslie Beck, registered dietitian and health columnist. , in an interview with The dose is Dr Brian Goldman.

International Health Agencies Reviewing Sweeteners

The most recent The NutriNet-Santé study on cardiovascular health was published last month in the British Medical Journal.

He sorted the participants into three groups – lower, upper and non-consumers of artificial sweeteners. Those in the top cohort consumed about 77 milligrams of artificial sweeteners per day, or about two packets of sweetener or less than 200 milliliters of diet soda.

Compared to non-drinkers, heavy drinkers tended to be younger, have a higher body mass index, be more likely to smoke, and less likely to exercise.

The study found that aspartame consumption was associated with higher rates of cerebrovascular events such as stroke, acesulfame potassium and sucralose. were associated with higher rates of coronary heart disease in heavy-drinking participants compared to non-drinking participants.

The NutriNet-Santé study is the first to quantify the consumption of artificial sweeteners from all sources – not just artificially sweetened drinks, according to the researcher. (SpeedKingz/Shutterstock)

A separate study also using data from the NutriNet-Santé group, published last March in the journal PLOS Medicine, found an association between artificial sweeteners – aspartame and acesulfame potassium in particular – and cancer risk.

Touvier notes that the World Health Organization (WHO) is currently investigating the safety of artificial sweeteners.

In a meta-analysis of nearly 300 studies published in April, the WHO found that there may be short-term benefits for weight loss when sugar-based beverages are replaced with artificially sweetened beverages, but not when compared to water. He also found that studies suggest « the possibility of long-term harm in the form of increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mortality », but warned that further research was needed. required.

“We hope this new work will provide important evidence and help [the WHO] review, possibly, their advisory and regulations on artificial sweeteners,” Touvier said.

In Canada, sugar substitutes are regulated and approved following a safety assessment by Health Canada.

Less consumption of sugary foods

David Ma, professor and nutrition researcher at the University of Guelph, says that although the findings of the most recent NutriNet-Santé study revealed an increased risk for cardiovascular health in a relatively small number of people, they suggest that there is a “signal” for potential long-term health. effects.

However, this does not indicate an immediate danger for most consumers.

« I would say, you know, the sky is not going to fall on our heads because we have artificial sweeteners in our diets, » said Ma, who is also director of the Guelph Family Health Study.

« But we certainly need to watch everything in our diets, including artificial sweeteners in terms of short-term and long-term effects. »

Like everything in nutrition, researchers say moderation is key. And Touvier says based on the results of his study, occasional consumption of artificial sweeteners poses a fairly low risk.

Canada’s Food Guide states that sugar substitutes are not necessary for healthy eating. In fact, their use may lead to less healthy food choices and increase the preference for sweet foods.

Whether it’s sweetness from artificial sweeteners or sugar, Beck said it’s essential to reduce consumption. She recommends:

  • Gradually reduce your intake of sweeteners – using a quarter packet less each week, for example.
  • Switch to flavored and sparkling waters for those craving the pop.
  • Consider plain yogurt naturally sweetened with fresh fruit instead of sweetened yogurts.

« It is quite possible to adjust your taste buds and come to prefer a less sweet taste », specifies the dietician.


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