In the last few years, I’ve watched a continuing battle among my friends about which is worse for you: artificial sweeteners or sugar. Unless you want to forgo all beverages that are sweet, you’re going to run into one of these. Rather than rely on anecdote or myth, we can inform this debate with research.
The available evidence points to the fact that there appears to be a correlation between sugar consumption and health problems; none can be detected with artificial sweeteners.
Let’s start with artificial sweeteners. These have, for decades, been attacked as harmful chemicals. But everything is a “chemical,” and not all of them are bad for us. One of the oldest artificial sweeteners is saccharin. Starting in the 1980s, Congress mandated that any product containing it be accompanied by the following: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”
But what was the basis for this decision? A review article published in The Annals of Oncology in 2004 noted that more than 50 studies had been published looking at saccharin in rats. Twenty of these were “one generation” studies, meaning that they did not look at the rats’ offspring. In only one of those studies did huge amounts of saccharin produce cancer, and it was in a type of rat that is frequently infected with a bladder parasite that would leave it susceptible to saccharin-induced bladder cancer.
But “two-generation studies,” in which rats were fed lots of saccharin and their offspring were, too, found that bladder cancer was significantly more common in second-generation rats. That prompted many countries to act.
There was a problem, though. This link has never been confirmed in humans. Moreover, it turns out that some rats are just more likely to get bladder cancer. Feed them large amounts of vitamin C, and they get bladder cancer. Studies in humans in Britain, Denmark, Canada and in the United States could find no association between saccharin consumption and bladder cancer once they accounted for cigarette smoking (which does cause it).
Based on these newer studies, saccharin was removed from the carcinogen list in 2000. But by that time, opinions were set. It did little to make anyone feel safe.