Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?
WebMD gets the low down on artificial sweeteners on the shelves and in the pipeline.
The Saccharin Saga
Safety, particularly as it relates to cancer risk, is on many
people's mind as a result of the saccharine saga, which began in the 1970s. In
1977, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tried to ban this sweetener as
animal studies showed that it caused cancer of the bladder, uterus, ovaries,
skin, and other organs. But the food industry intervened, urging Congress to
keep it on the market with a warning label that (until recently) read:
"Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product
contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory
In the late 1990s, the Calorie Control Council stated that the main health
concern about saccharin was bladder
cancer in male rats -- not people. They stated that further research has
shown that male rats have a particular predisposition to bladder cancer and as
a result the National Institutes of Health removed saccharin from its hit list
of cancer-causing agents.
"Congress said no to the [original call for a] ban due to backlash but
stated that there has to be a warning," ACSH's Kava recalls. "More
recently, Congress de-listed saccharin as very high doses may cause bladder
cancer in male rats -- not in female rats or anyone else," she says.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there's no scientific evidence that
any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer.
"The cancer risks are not something that an individual person should
worry about," CSPI's Jacobson says. "It's more a risk for the
government as the potential problems occur when millions of people consume the
sweeteners for years," he tells WebMD.
But cancer risk may not be the only safety concern with these artificial
"My overlying feeling is that artificial sweeteners are safe," says
ACSH's Kava. "The only caveat is asparatame in people with a rare disorder
known as phenylketonuria (PKU), who are unable to metabolize phenylalanine. PKU
is detected at birth through a mandatory screening program.
Jacobson adds that in the short term, some people develop headaches after consuming foods sweetened with