Food additives you should avoid

Which ones pose a health risk?
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  • Updated:2 May 2008

05.Artificial sweeteners

Intense sweetener additivesArtificial sweeteners can be hundreds of times sweeter than sugar.

These 'intense sweeteners' are typically used in diet and low-sugar foods and drinks. Reports link many of them to cancer.

Artificial sweeteners and cancer

In the 1970s, several studies of rats fed very large amounts of saccharin (954) found its use was associated with a higher incidence of bladder cancer. It was banned in Canada and until 1996 products containing saccharin in the US had to be labelled with a warning. But research in humans largely failed to turn up that risk, and in 2000 the US Government’s National Toxicology Program delisted saccharin as a possible carcinogen.

Research in 2005 from the European Ramazzini Foundation (updated in 2007) found feeding rats aspartame (951) at simulated doses around levels considered safe for humans increased the rats’ risk of leukaemia, lymphoma and breast cancer.

Aspartame has also been linked to headaches, allergies and changes in behaviour. But a review of more than 500 studies, including the Ramazzini research, found the claims failed to stand up to rigorous scientific examination, and there was no credible evidence that aspartame is carcinogenic. While many scientists are concerned about the Ramazzini Foundation results, FSANZ and the US food regulatory authority told us they see no reason to alter their position that aspartame is safe.

Another intense sweetener, cyclamate (952), was banned in Canada, the UK and the US over 30 years ago because animal studies indicated links to cancer, but this ban was lifted in the UK in 1996 following further studies. However, another UK survey found some children could be consuming up to twice the ADI for cyclamate. Cyclamate is approved for use in Australia.

CHOICE verdict

There’s certainly a more substantial risk to your health from being overweight than there is from eating artificially sweetened products.

These have often been recommended to aid in weight loss, but a recent study challenged this recommendation by suggesting that people who choose diet drinks containing artificial sweeteners tend to overcompensate and consume more calories than those who don’t.

The jury is still out on the absolute safety of artificial sweeteners, so it makes sense to limit your and your children’s intake of artificially sweetened foods and drinks. Losing weight without the help of artificial sweeteners would be the win/win situation.

Those who should definitely avoid aspartame are people with the rare disorder phenylketonuria, or PKU, who must limit their intake of phenylalanine, an amino acid in aspartame.


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