Saccharin: A Clean Bill of Health?
What do you think of the federal government's recent decision to remove saccharin from the list of known cancer-causing agents? Does this mean that saccharin is safer than we thought?
In May, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) removed saccharin from its list of potential cancer-causing agents. The group now believes that the risk for bladder tumors, which developed in rats that were fed saccharin, isn't relevant to humans. The NIEHS director, Kenneth Olden, also said that having observed saccharin use in humans since 1981 (when saccharin was placed on the list) has given officials confidence that no cancer danger exists. However, I'm dubious about that conclusion.
As Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, noted in a statement issued after the NIEHS announcement, a number of studies have indicated that saccharin causes cancer in animal bladders, lungs, ovaries, uterus, and other organs. It also increases the potency of other cancer-causing chemicals. Jacobson also cited a human study conducted by the National Cancer Institute that correlated bladder cancer with exposure to saccharin and other artificial sweeteners.
Another expert that I respect, Sidney Wolf, M.D., director of Public Citizen Health Research Group in Washington, D.C., agrees with Jacobson. He maintains that studies showing that saccharin causes cancer in animals should be enough evidence to keep it on the list. Wolf suggested that under its current leadership NIEHS has become "much more susceptible to political influence from industry."
Personally, I think it was a mistake to take saccharin off the list. The government's action should not influence your decision to use saccharin or other artificial sweeteners. I still recommend avoiding saccharin and aspartame as well as the natural, nonnutritive sweetener sorbitol, which isn't easily absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract and can worsen irritable bowel syndrome and other intestinal problems. The newest artificial sweetener, sucralose, seems to be safer, but I still think you're better off eating sugar -- we know it is safe and relatively low in calories when used in small amounts.
The best noncaloric sweetener is still stevia, an herb in the chrysanthemum family, that is sold as a dietary supplement. You can buy stevia as leaves or as a granular white powder. To use it, you dissolve the powder in water and use drops of the liquid as a sweetening solution. But be careful -- a few drops of the liquid provide the sweetness of an entire cup of sugar.