Controversy has surrounded the use of the major artificial sweeteners approved for use in Australia (listed in the table), largely because most have been linked with various forms of cancer, genetic abnormalities and other chronic diseases.
- Aspartame, for example, has been found to cause lymphomas and leukaemias in rats.
- Saccharin fed to rats was associated with higher rates of bladder cancer.
- And studies have shown adverse effects on the reproductive tract of male rats due to cyclamate in the diet.
But as a review from the World Cancer Research Fund explains, artificial sweeteners in studies are administered to animals in massive amounts – far greater than humans could consume in foods and drinks. It says the evidence does not suggest that artificial sweeteners have a detectable effect on the risk of any cancer. However, anti-sweetener campaigners argue more studies are needed before we can be confident of their safety.
Concerns that artificial sweeteners increase appetite and energy intake, and cause people to gain weight, date back over two decades. Several studies from the late 1980s and early ’90s showed artificial sweeteners in products that provide little or no energy were associated with heightened hunger. While later work failed to support these findings, a 1986 survey by the American Cancer Society found people who used artificial sweeteners were more likely to gain weight than those who didn’t.
A 2009 review of the literature, looking at the mechanisms by which artificial sweeteners may promote energy intake and weight gain, revealed that most weren’t supported by the evidence. A 2010 review reported that epidemiological studies have generally shown a positive association between artificial sweetener intake and weight gain, but more high quality clinical trials are needed to establish or refute causality.
The newest kid on the block is the ‘natural’ sweetener, stevia (additive number 960, specifically steviol glycosides extracted from the Stevia rebaudiana plant), which you’ll find as a tabletop sweetener under brand names PureVia, Hermesetas Stevia Sweet and in CSR Smart. It, too, has had its share of controversy, with the US Center for Science in the Public Interest reporting it’s been inadequately tested and branding it “President Bush’s parting gift to the soda industry”, after the FDA issued a midnight go-ahead for the sweetener at the end of that president’s term. It was approved for use in Australia in 2008, but we’re yet to see its widespread use here due to issues with aftertaste (a key issue for the stevia industry globally).
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) reviews safety evidence and recommends a maximum level permitted in foods before approving sweeteners, and other additives, for use in Australia. But CHOICE wants more frequent exposure assessments, to ensure that our consumption of these sweeteners when consumed in a range of foods throughout the day does not exceed the acceptable daily intake recommended by scientific experts.