News from CRIS: Risk in the News - Artificial Sweeteners a Cancer Risk?

April 4, 2022

While it's easy to get caught up in clickbait headlines about the latest scientific breakthroughs, that can fill us with fear and anxiety, it's essential to take a step back and explore the information critically and directly from the source. In this post, we'll dig into the facts surrounding that latest paper that's led to sensational headlines around the risks associated with artificial sweeteners.

What does the news say?

You may have seen the headlines: “Artificial sweeteners cause cancer in mice. Here’s worrying data from humans.”, “Hard to swallow. Popular fizzy drinks could increase your risk of deadly cancers, study finds”, “Are artificial sweeteners a safe alternative?”, “These Popular Drinks May Increase Cancer Risk, New Study Suggests”, “Artificial Sweeteners Are Associated With Increased Cancer Risk, Finds Large-Scale Cohort Study”, “Artificial sweeteners linked with a 13% higher risk of cancer”.
These are a few, of the many, headlines making their way through our newsfeeds over the past couple of weeks. But, do most of these articles explain the scientific nuance?
We found that the reporting quality varied dramatically depending on the news source. While some sources explained the research and the risks fully, other sources provided little useful information other than reinforcing the headlines that artificial sweeteners cause cancer.
Most concerning, it appears that the articles shared more frequently contained less scientific rigor and more on adverse health outcomes.

So, what are the facts?

We've looked at the study and found that, frustratingly, many news headlines and stories did not fully represent the science or the researchers' conclusions. Unfortunately, this isn't uncommon in the world of science journalism. 

What makes this case particularly poignant is that the limitations of the study are specifically called out by the study's authors yet were not discussed in many of the journalism and blog posts around this topic. The study's shortcomings are significant in understanding the actual rise in cancer risk associated with the consumption of artificial sweeteners.

Author identified study drawbacks:

  1. The study was not designed to determine if artificial sweeteners cause cancer, therefore it cannot conclude that artificial sweeteners cause cancer.  
  2. The study lacked diverse participants.
  3. The data suggests some of the outcomes could be the result of participants' weight-related health disturbances.


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