July 28, 2015

Why you shouldn't sweat an extra Splenda in your coffee

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on October 19, 2017.

Is sugar a healthier option than artificial sweeteners? Despite some common misperceptions, artificial sweeteners are clearly the healthier choice, Aaron Carroll argues in the New York Times' "The Upshot."

Artificial sweeteners are often cited as being harmful chemicals, in part because of early research findings gave them a bad reputation, Carroll writes. But, he says, the initial science hasn't held up over time.

For instance, Congress in the 1980s began requiring products that contain saccharine to include a label warning that the sweetener had been linked to cancer in lab animals. Several countries took similar steps after multi-generation studies found a strong link between saccharin and bladder cancer in rats' offspring.

But Carroll notes that the connection between saccharin and bladder cancer "has never been confirmed in humans" once studies considered the effects of smoking. Plus, he adds, "it turns out that some rats are just more likely to get bladder cancer," calling into question the prior results.

Based on the new research, NIH delisted saccharin as a carcinogen in 2000. And while there have been similar health questions raised about another artificial sweetener— aspartame—those are also based on a "highly contested" research that also examined lab rats, Carroll writes.

The science on added sugar

The evidence of negative health effects from artificial sweeteners is tenuous as best, but the case for added sugars being bad for your health is well-documented, Carroll says.

For instance:

  • A study in a 2014 JAMA Internal Medicine found those in highest 20% of added sugar consumption were more than twice as likely to die of cardiovascular disease compared with those in the lowest 20%; and
  • Recent research in the journal PLOS ONE found a clear link between sugar and type 2 diabetes.

Further, a 2012 research review published in BMJ found an increased sugar intake resulted in increased body fat and overall weight—while a meta-analysis published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2014 found that using artificial sweeteners was associated with lower overall fat levels and lower body weight.

"There's a potential, and probably real, harm from consuming added sugars; there are most likely none from artificial sweeteners," Carroll concludes (Carroll, "The Upshot," New York Times, 7/27).

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