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Busting cancer myths:
Sugar & Artificial Sweeteners

Published: 17 Jul 2017

In part three of our busting cancer myths series, we look at whether consuming sugar and artificial sweeteners can contribute to developing cancer.

Sugar has received a lot of negative press in the past few years for its role in bad health and obesity; there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of diets out there that urge people to cut down or cut out sugar for good.

Does the body need sugar?

Sugar is a carbohydrate that helps to fuel your muscles and keep your brain active. There are two types you can consume: naturally occurring sugars, such as lactose found in milk and glucose in bread and pasta, and added sugars – such as the table sugar (also known as sucrose) – used as an ingredient in many foods.

While naturally occurring sugars are not bad for you in small quantities, particularly if you live an active lifestyle, the problem most people face is that we consume too much added sugar in our diet.

Eating too much sugar can cause your blood sugar levels to spike after meals or snacks, before crashing very quickly. This effect can leave you feeling tired and irritable, and craving more sugary foods to pick your blood sugar levels back up again. It’s a vicious cycle.

Can eating sugar cause cancer?

Among the possible side effects of excess sugar consumption that some health experts warn about is the increased risk of getting cancer. Naturally this worries many people, particularly if there is a history of cancer in your family.

However, while sugar – particularly added sugar - isn’t great for your health, at present there has been no conclusive scientific evidence stating that sugars alone increase the chances of you developing cancer.

Where did the myth come from?

Medical studies have been carried out which have shown that cancer cells consume more glucose sugar than normal cells. However, over time this evidence may have been misinterpreted, and a more conclusive link drawn between sugar consumption and cancer diagnoses. 

From the evidence available, there is no direct link between eating sugar and the development of cancer. There is also no evidence to suggest that it accelerates the progression of cancer, or hinders the success of your cancer treatment.

In seems the only link between sugar and cancer is the effect of a poor diet on your health. The risk of contracting certain types of cancer increases if you are overweight, and as most of us are aware, excessive sugar consumption can cause you to gain weight.

What about artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are chemical substances used instead of sugar to sweeten foods and drinks. They are usually low-calorie or calorie-free, so many people prefer them to sugar, especially if you are trying to lose weight.  They are also a useful alternative for people with diabetes who need to watch their blood sugar levels while still enjoying their favourite foods.

In recent years there has probably been more scaremongering around the link between artificial sweeteners and cancer than sugar, but it seems the truth is that they pose no greater risk than sugar to your wellbeing.

Just like sugar, no conclusive scientific evidence has been released linking artificial sweeteners to cancer. Actually, many major sweeteners brands such as Sweet N Low, NutraSweet and Splenda have been tested and approved for consumption in the US by the Food and Drug Administration.

However, because these types of artificial sweeteners are still chemical-based, many people prefer and are choosing to rely on naturally occurring products to sweeten food. Popular choices include:

How much sugar or artificial sweetener should I consume?

It is up to you which sweetener you choose to use, but health professionals always recommend consuming it in moderation as part of a balanced diet. Women should ideally eat no more than 100 calories’ worth of sugar per day (around 6 teaspoons), and men no more than 150 calories’ worth (9 teaspoons).

If you’re worried about the risks of developing cancer, maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle can help to reduce the chances of you contracting some forms of the disease.

Equally, if you have been diagnosed with cancer, a nutritious and balanced diet will fuel your immune system, and help you fight the disease head-on. It may also aid your recovery when going through chemotherapy or other cancer treatments.

If you are concerned about your sugar consumption, and its impact on your weight or wellbeing, speak to your doctor for support in making healthy choices.