• Other artificial sweeteners are safe, too

    I angered many of you by saying that diet soda is safe. I further angered some of you by parsing a study that was being covered as proof that soda is making kids into violent beasts. So I might as well keep going. I’ve been getting lots of emails telling me that aspartame is just the top of the iceberg, that it has nothing on sacharrin.

    Here’s an excerpt from my second book (which you can still buy!) covering that issue:

    Not all artificial sweeteners are the same.  Saccharin is one of the oldest artificial sweeteners.  There have been more than 50 studies written about the effect of saccharin on rats.  About 20 of them were done in rats consuming saccharin for at least one and a half years.  Nineteen of these studies found nothing.  One study found an increased rate of bladder cancer, but it was in a type of rat that gets easily infected with a bladder parasite that can leave it more susceptible.

    Scientists then moved on to see if giving two generations of rats saccharin would do anything.  They fed rats, and then their children, lots of saccharin.  They found that male rats in the second generation got more bladder cancer.  Some countries banned saccharin, and others – like the US – started labeling products with warnings.  There was one problem – the link couldn’t be found in humans.  Ironically, later work found that often, cancer induced in rats doesn’t equal cancer in humans.  For instance, if you give rats Vitamin C in the same dose as saccharin in similar studies, that causes bladder cancer in rats, too.  Yet no one is attempting to ban Vitamin C.

    Might as well pre-empt further emails and cover cyclamate, too:

    Cyclamate was approved by the FDA for use in the United States in 1950.  Almost 20 years later, a landmark study found that cyclamate increased the rate of bladder cancer in rats.  This led to its being banned in a number of countries.  Later, the ban was lifted pretty much everywhere but the US.  In one of those studies you can’t believe they actually did, some scientists fed 37 monkeys either no cyclamate, 100 mg/kg of cyclamate, or 500 mg/kg a cyclamate every day for 24 years.  Twenty-four years!  By the way, 500 mg/kg is like drinking 30 cans of diet soda a day.  At the end of the study they killed the remaining monkeys and autopsied them.  Three animals in the cyclamate receiving group had cancers, but they were different types of cancer in different parts of the body, and they were common cancers in monkeys.  Their conclusions were that there was no apparent risk of even consuming that much cyclamate.

    I’m not denying that huge quantities of anything are bad. Drink too much acidic stuff, and don’t brush your teeth, and you’re going to have teeth issues. Drink too much of something with no nutritional value, and you’re going to crowd out what you need, eventually. Drink too much soda with sugar, and it’s going to lead to weight gain.

    But that’s not the same as questioning whether the occasional diet soda will harm your health in a major way. It won’t. Drink it if you want; don’t if it’s not your thing. But there’s no reason to ban the stuff, no reason to scare people off it, and no reason for anyone to lecture anyone else on its consumption in moderation.


    • Aaron, are you saying that because artificial sweeteners don’t cause cancer they are safe? What about studies showing a link between artificial sweeteners and metabolic syndrome, obesity and diabetes? In other words, artificial sweeteners haven’t solved the problem they were intended to address, so why allow them to be used.

      • Those studies are negative, too.

        Look, if you want to say something is dangerous and needs to be banned, you need to prove it. Studies haven’t been able to do that (and they’ve tried). You can’t ask me to prove a negative. I focused on cancer, because that’s what the scary emails and campaigns to have substances banned focus on.

        • My reading of the literature is that diet soft drinks can be part of a pattern of unhealthy behavior that may provide some neurobiological reinforcements to that bad behavior. However, there is nothing chemically dangerous about artificial sweeteners in moderation. When parents mindlessly use them as a surrogate for sugary drinks and allow their children multiple servings daily, they may be causing serious harm by enabling unhealthy behavior.

          Anecdotally, the children I know who consume a lot of diet soft drinks also consume a lot of fruit juice. Banning the former would probably only shift consumption to the latter or to similar alternatives.

    • We have focussed on a lot of easy ways to lose weight and it is becoming apparent that some of those ways are dangerous and others might actually add to the problem in the long term.

      Think of rainbow pills of the distant past, amphetamines, very strict adherence to a low fat diet. We can add artificial sweeteners to the group though their dangers in low use have never been satisfactorily proven. But does this latter group lead to obese people eating more? That is something that could be true. To be in shape one doesn’t have to be skinny and if one has a few extra pounds it is no tragedy.