Do artificial sweeteners cause cancer?
No, the best evidence shows that artificial sweeteners in our food and drink, like aspartame, do not increase the risk of cancer.
When we look at large groups of people, we don’t see more cases of cancer in those who have artificially sweetened food and drink compared to those who don’t. Stories suggesting a link with cancer are often based on studies in animals, which do not provide evidence of a link in humans.
In 2013 the European Food Safety Authority ruled that artificial sweeteners in food and drink pose no threat to our health if consumed within the daily limits. These are much more than most people would be likely to have. For aspartame, it is equivalent to 15 cans of diet coke.
What are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are used in food and drink instead of sugar, as they give a sweet taste without the calories. Often these products will be advertised as low or zero sugar.
There are many cancer myths, including artificial sweeteners, that haven’t been proven to cause cancer. However, there are proven causes of cancer, and things you can do to reduce your risk.
We regularly review and evaluate newly published research into the causes of cancer in order to shape our health information. And there are key things we look out for to evaluate any new study.
What type of study is it?
Was the study looking at cells in a dish, animals or people? Studies in animals and cells can help scientists understand the basics of cancer but they cannot replicate how things will work in humans.
So, we focus more on studies in people as they can show with much more certainty how something affects the risk of developing cancer in humans. The best studies also account for other factors that could affect someone’s cancer risk, such as whether they smoke or drink.
How many people were in the study, and how long were they followed for? Studies involving only a handful of people aren’t likely to be as reliable, because results are more likely to happen by chance. And studies that only follow people for a short timeframe can miss any potential long-term effects. Therefore, we mainly look at studies that follow hundreds or usually thousands of people for a long time because they give results we can be surer of.
Who carried out the study and where is it published?
It’s important to see if a study was published in a scientific journal and was carried out by scientists that work for a university or known institute. This is because before researchers can publish their findings in a journal, other experts who were not involved in the study will check it is accurate.
How does the study fit in with previous evidence?
Some studies show conflicting results, but we evaluate any new study within the context of all the available research and give more weight to the most rigorous scientific studies.
How to spot fake news about cancer?
Sometimes news outlets can over-inflate stories about cancer, whether it’s a new treatment, or news on what could lower or increase your risk of developing the disease. You can use the same questions we discussed above to judge a study and news story yourself. For more tips on how to spot fake news visit our blog here.
Boyle P, Koechlin A, Autier P. Sweetened carbonated beverage consumption and cancer risk: meta analysis and review. European journal of cancer prevention : the official journal of the European Cancer Prevention Organisation (ECP). 2014;23:481-490.
Koechlin A, Autier P, Boyle P. Meta-analysis of sweetened carbonated beverage consumption and cancer risk. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2013;31:e12548-e12548.
Mishra A, Ahmed K, Froghi S, Dasgupta P. Systematic review of the relationship between artificial sweetener consumption and cancer in humans: analysis of 599,741 participants. International journal of clinical practice. 2015;69:1418-1426.
(EFSA) EFSA. Scientific Opinion on the safety of advantame for the proposed uses as a food additive. EFSA Journal. 2013;11.