Artificial Sweeteners? All sweet and no bite?

Artificial Sweetener

Anna D’Arcy, Accredited Practising Dietitian

Artificial sweeteners are once again in the media headlines due to a recent report from The World Health Organisation (WHO).  This article provides a quick summary of the evidence to help those wondering if artificial sweeteners are a good thing or not. 

What are they? Sweeteners can be artificial or natural (Aspartame vs Stevia). Both are hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar. This means that only a few grains are required to provide the same level of sweetness (and without the calories). Aspartame is the one that is making headlines right now. It’s been around for decades and may be found in Diet Coke, Coke Zero, and Pepsi Max.  It has the additive number 951 (which is what it may be called on the ingredient list).

Why is in the news?  The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reviewed the evidence on the safety of Aspartame once more and discovered a few significant (but lower quality) studies that reveal a potential rise in liver cancer in those who consumed more Aspartame in diet soft drinks. 

As a result, the WHO has chosen to classify Aspartame as a “possible carcinogen.” For comparison, other items on the ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ list include red meat, night shift, and DDT insecticide (among 92 others!).  For context, the top risk category from the WHO is ‘carcinogenic to humans’ and alcohol, smoking, processed meat, and radiation are all listed here.

So should I ditch the diet drinks?  Based on the new WHO recommendations and research, it appears sensible to be mindful of your consumption of aspartame (and diet soft drinks), and you could certainly say the same thing for alcohol and processed meats. However, never consuming these foods ever again doesn’t sound realistic and the occasional splurge is not going to set you on the path to cancer.

A final word about sugar

Sugar and sweet foods are a normal part of life (thank goodness) and among a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods, there are no issues. Using artificial sugars as a way to avoid sugar seems like a lot of effort (and sometimes a sacrifice of taste) to avoid a few calories. If you like sugar in your tea, then go ahead and enjoy that. If you have grown to enjoy the taste of foods without it, then that is cool too. Sugar is discretionary.. take it or leave it.