The cola you drink, the sugar-free things you gorge on thinking they are a solution to your sugar woes, all contain artificial sweeteners. We knew this. We also knew that these sweeteners could have carcinogenic effects in mice. But what we did not know until now was the effect they have on humans. Read this piece before you have that next dessert!
What are artificial sweeteners?
There has often been confusion between sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners. The former is found in toothpaste, chewing gum, etc. and their chemical structure has a sugar component but also an alcohol component. When ingested, they raise the blood sugar level. However, the raise is not as much as when sucrose would have been ingested as the glycemic index of these is lower. This index is higher for sucrose, meaning that it is broken down more easily and thus absorbed to a higher extent.
Artificial sweeteners can be as much as 20,000 times as sweet as sugar and once ingested, they leave a kind of a bitter taste behind. Free of calories, they do not lead to an increase in blood sugar levels. Amazing? Not so much. These high-intensity sweeteners are now under scrutiny for their possible effects as carcinogens.
What was the study on artificial sugars that was conducted?
A study was conducted between 2009 and 2021 wherein 102,865 French volunteers’ health data were surveyed based on the NutriNet-Santé study. As part of the study, those who volunteered were given reminders every six months wherein they recorded their eating habits, products, serving sizes etc. The sweeteners under study were aspartame, acesulfame potassium and sucralose. The findings of the study were as follows:
- In people who consumed products containing artificial sweeteners, there was an increased risk of cancer reported, a 13 to 14% higher risk of developing cancer compared to their counterparts who did not consume products containing these
- Higher consumers of aspartame had cancer rates 15% higher than those who did not consume it
- Lower consumers of aspartame had cancer rates 12% higher than those who did not consume it
- Aspartame was associated with breast cancer
- Higher consumers of acesulfame potassium had cancer rates 13% higher than those who did not consume it
- Lower consumers of acesulfame potassium had cancer rates 12% higher than those who did not consume it
- Higher consumers of sucralose, as well as lower consumers, had cancer rates around 3% higher than those who did not consume it
Why is the data shocking?
In the 1940s, studies had suggested that in lab mice, artificial sugars were found to cause cancer. Hence, though scientists were exploring whether this was the same case in humans, it wasn’t taken very seriously and the studies in mice were said to be inconclusive enough to assume that these sweeteners had the same effect in humans. Now that the findings of this study indicate otherwise, it is actually causing ripples in the scientific community. This is because artificial sweeteners were considered healthy alternatives until now! These chemicals were thought to mimic sugar with absolutely no calorie additions.
Imagine having lived through life gorging on products that had artificial sweeteners on a daily basis, thinking they were actually satisfying your cravings while having zero side effects. Well, and then to come to the conclusion that you might have done your body more damage than good.
Are other side effects possible?
Apart from carcinogenic properties, studies also suggest that these artificial sweeteners could cause diabetes in those who do not have it by changing the composition of the gut bacteria and causing glucose intolerance. These sugars also cause cravings and thus may lead to obesity. Thus, these should only be taken under medical supervision and once you are aware of the risks associated.
What can be done as substitutes for artificial sweeteners?
If you are a diabetic and are worried about possible cancer-causing effects of these products, there are ways you could adopt to be free from this constant worry.
Stevia is one option that is a low-calorie sweetener and has been approved by the FDA. It suppresses plasma glucose levels and increases insulin production. Moreover, it is obtained from the leaves of the plant and thus is not synthesized in the lab.
Tagatose is another such product that can be tried as it interferes with the body’s absorption of carbohydrates and even lowers the sugar levels in the blood.
Adding fresh fruit dishes, dates etc. can also sweeten the dish without the risk of having your sugar levels increase dramatically.