Aspartame: Debunking Controversies Surrounding Artificial Sweeteners' Use

Some people believe long-term use of this alternative causes major health risks such as cancer, but major studies reveal its alleged health effects remain unproven.
Some people believe long-term use of this alternative causes major health risks such as cancer, but major studies reveal its alleged health effects remain unproven. (Photo: REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot/Illustration)

There are controversies surrounding the use of artificial sweeteners like aspartame in soft drinks.  Some people believe long-term use of this alternative causes major health risks such as cancer, but principal studies reveal its alleged health effects remain unproven.

German researchers' study led by the University of Freiburg and published in "The BMJ," considered the largest analysis of the artificial sweeteners' effects on health, saw "little robust evidence" that supported neither its health benefits nor opposed its harmful effects when using long term. However, according to The Independent, there were small studies that showed there was an evident "slow weight gain" when sweeteners replaced the use of real sugar, although it only has "low or very low certainty" out of the 56 studies in the review. There was also no evidence that proved using sweeteners could help obese patients to lose weight.

There were also studies that revealed the use of artificial sweetener could increase the risk of cancer, although it has yet to be proven. The research also showed its complete lack on the sugar substitute's long-term health effects when taken over the years or decades.

On the other hand, the growing obesity cases in the U.K. and other developed countries drive the proliferation of diet alternatives that use artificial sweeteners like aspartame to replace sugar. But, these nations also lack long-term studies about its long-term effects that raise fears over the 2017 research that linked the daily diet drink consumption to rising rates of stroke or dementia.

"Evidence for health effects due to use of [sweeteners] is conflicting," Dr Joerg Meerpohl said in the paper. "While some studies report an association between sweetener use and reduced obesity and risk of type 2 diabetes (thus suggesting a benefit for general health and the management of diabetes), other studies suggest that sweetener use could increase the risk of weight gain, diabetes, and cancer."

But what is aspartame? Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved this additive 40 years ago. It is a calorie-free powder that contains amino acids, which are 200 times sweeter than sugar, obtained from eggs and milk, per Daily Mail Online.

There is false health news that said aspartame's "breakdown product" methanol is toxic and can cause permanent blindness, but only at "extremely high levels." Two Israel studies in 2015 and 2018 also showed that its effect on both "gut bacteria and blood sugar" increased. Although the balance of good and bacteria play an important role in a healthy immune system and metabolism, blood sugar spikes could link to heart disease and diabetes.

However, the Israeli studies reportedly used mice to prove its claims. So, it is difficult to apply to the broader population. Human metabolism greatly differs from that of rats. Other research on aspartame and the gut showed that the dosages used for this effect are higher than what people would consume.

Many countries deemed the use of aspartame safe compared to other artificial sweeteners. A 2013 European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) report also concluded that it did not damage genes, cause cancer or multiple sclerosis, or put unborn babies' health at risk.

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