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Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?

WebMD gets the low down on artificial sweeteners on the shelves and in the pipeline.
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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 animals."

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 sweeteners.

"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 aspartame.

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