Health concerns about the consumption of artificial sweeteners could be strengthened with the publication of a new study linking their intake to increased risk of heart disease and stroke events.
In this latest large-scale, prospective study of French adults, total artificial sweetener intake from all sources was associated with increased risk overall of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease.
The study was published online in the BMJ.
The current study differs from those done previously in that it includes artificial sweetener intake from both food and drinks, whereas previous studies have focused mainly on artificial sweetener content of beverages alone.
“Here we have quantified for the first time the global exposure to artificial sweeteners. This is not just beverages but includes the use of tabletop sweeteners, and other foods that include artificial sweeteners such as yogurts and desserts. This is the first time this information has been correlated to risk of heart disease,” senior author Mathilde Touvier, MD, Sorbonne Paris Nord University, told this news organization.
Just over half of the artificial sweetener intake in the study came from drinks, with the rest coming from tabletop sweeteners and foods.
“We included hard cardio- and cerebrovascular clinical endpoints such as a heart attack or stroke, and our results suggest that the amount of artificial sweetener in less than one can of soda could increase the risk of such events,” Dr. Touvier noted.
“This is an important and statistically significant association which shows robustness in all models after adjusting for many other possible confounding factors,” she said.
“There is now mounting evidence correlating artificial sweeteners to weight gain and heart disease,” she concluded. “My advice would be that we all need to try to limit sugar intake, but we should not consider artificial sweeteners as safe alternatives. Rather, we need to try to reduce our need for a sugary taste in our diet.”
But another leading researcher in the field urges caution in interpreting these results.
John Sievenpiper, MD, departments of nutritional sciences and medicine, University of Toronto, commented: “This paper shows the same relationship seen by many other large prospective cohorts which model the intake of artificial sweeteners as baseline or prevalent exposures.
“These observations are well recognized to be at high risk of residual confounding from behavior clustering and reverse causality in which being at risk for cardiovascular disease causes people to consume artificial sweeteners as a strategy to mitigate this risk as opposed to the other way around.”
Risk increased by 9%
The current study included 103,388 French adults from the NutriNet-Sante cohort, of whom 37.1% reported consumption of artificial sweeteners. The sweeteners assessed were mainly aspartame (58% of sweetener intake), acesulfame potassium (29%), and sucralose (10%), with the other 3% made up of various other sweeteners including cyclamates and saccharin.
Results showed that over an average 9 years of follow-up, artificial sweetener intake was associated with a 9% increased risk of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular events, including myocardial infarction, acute coronary syndrome, angioplasty, angina, stroke, or transient ischemic attack, with a hazard ratio of 1.09 (95% confidence interval, 1.01-1.18; P = .03).
The average intake of artificial sweeteners among those who reported consuming them was 42.46 mg/day, which corresponds to approximately one individual packet of tabletop sweetener or 100 mL of diet soda.
“We don’t have enough evidence to work out an amount of artificial sweetener that is harmful, but we did show a dose-effect association, with a higher risk of cardiovascular events with higher consumption,” Dr. Touvier said.
“Higher consumption in this study was a mean of 77 mg/day artificial sweetener, which is about 200 mL of soda – just a bit less than one standard can of soda,” she added.
The absolute incidence rate of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular events in higher consumers was 346 per 100,000 person-years vs. 314 per 100,000 person-years in nonconsumers.
Further analysis suggested that aspartame intake was particularly associated with increased risk of cerebrovascular events, while acesulfame potassium and sucralose were associated with increased coronary heart disease risk.