Artificial Sweeteners: Friend or Foe

Despite intense scrutiny of artificial sweeteners for years, the product continues to be popular with dieters, diabetics and many just looking for a sweet fix. Even in the face of declining soda sales, the market share of diet soda continues to expand, with the second most popular soda being a diet variety. At the same time, the global market for non-sugar sweeteners has had impressive sales in recent years. In 2010, over 9 million dollars were spent on non-sugar sweeteners, with the industry anticipating continued growth in coming years.

Similarly, artificial sweeteners have been embraced by those seeking to lose weight. Obesity is a growing global epidemic, representing a serious public health problem. In the United States over one third of people are obese and thus at an increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Overall, the cost of obesity exceeds 110 billion dollars annually, representing a major economic burden.

Interestingly, recent studies have actually shown a relationship between weight-gain and artificial sweeteners. Researchers speculate that when we consume sugar-substitutes, the body expects to see surge in glucose. When this expectation is not met, we continue to crave sweets, consuming food until the craving is met. The key to weight loss however is cutting the total number of calories consumed, thus it is essential to be a mindful eater.

One of the main health concerns associated with artificial sweeteners is a possible increased cancer risk. In the 1970’s, studies found that rats feed a diet high in saccharin (SweetN’Low), developed bladder cancer at an increased rate. Despite further studies demonstrating that the mechanism of cancer was limited to rodent physiology, the sweetener still carries a warning that it may be hazardous to one’s health. However, in 2000 the sweetener was delisted as a carcinogen by the US National Toxicology Program and the National Cancer Institute also states that there is no sound scientific evidence that any artificial sweetener cause cancer or serious health problems in humans.

Bladder cancer, however, is a serious health concern in the United States. It is the 4th cause of cancer death in men. The American Cancer Society estimates that 73,000 new cases of bladder cancer will be diagnosed this year, with nearly 15,000 deaths attributed to the disease. Bladder cancer almost exclusively occurs in people over the age of 55 and is associated with known risk factors. Smoking increases the risk of bladder cancer 2-4 fold, with the risk proportional to the duration and frequency of cigarette smoking. Fortunately, if you quit smoking your risk reduces with time. Additionally there is a known risk associated with chemical exposures, namely aromatic amines, which are found in dyes and dry cleaner chemicals. The most common initial symptom is painless blood in the urine which should always prompt a visit to the physician.

Artificial sweeteners have a role in controlling carbohydrate intake by diabetics and dieters, while also decreasing ones risk of dental cavities. Despite extensive studies, epidemiological research has failed to demonstrate any cancer risks. While, diet products are a safe alternative to their full sugar counterparts. Exercising at least 3 days a week, increasing fiber and focusing on healthy choices are the best way to lose weight and stay fit.

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