Small but important changes in diet—such as drinking more water—can help you reduce consumption of artificial sweeteners. (For Health Beat)

It’s a question that has been debated for years: Are artificial sweeteners bad for you?

A research study has found an association between three frequently consumed artificial sweeteners—aspartame, acesulfame-K and sucralose—and the risk of cancer.

Of 103,000 people who reported diet, lifestyle and medical history to the study’s researchers from 2009 to 2021, those who consumed the largest amount of artificial sweeteners had a 13% higher risk of cancer compared to those who didn’t consume those ingredients.

The study found higher risks for breast cancer and obesity-related cancers. About 79% of the study participants were women.

While the results would need to be replicated in other large-scale cohorts, the findings may provide important information about the potential harmful health effects of artificial sweeteners.

The study may not settle the ongoing debate about these ingredients, but it should cause people to think more about what they’re eating and drinking, Corewell Health dietitian Rebecca Mason said.

“Do we know it is conclusive? No. But it is a reason to be cautious and think about the ‘why’ behind your diet soft drinks,” Mason said.

Diet sodas are just one place consumers will find artificial sweeteners. Other culprits include yogurts, jellies, chewing gum, granola bars, ketchup and a variety of beverages.

One indication of artificial sweeteners in a product is a “no added sugar” marking. But you should also look closely at the ingredients.

“Flip it over and take a look at the label,” Mason said.

Look for the names of eight artificial sweeteners that are approved by the FDA: aspartame, acesulfame potassium (or acesulfame-K), luo han guo (monk fruit) extract, neotame, saccharin, stevia, sucralose and advantame.

The FDA has set an acceptable daily intake for the sweeteners, which means they’re considered safe in the recommended amounts per day over the course of a person’s lifetime.

Artificial sweeteners are many times sweeter than natural sugars, allowing food manufacturers to use small amounts for sweeter flavor. Aspartame, for example, is about 200 times sweeter than sugar.

Here are some of Mason’s tips to reduce artificial sweetener consumption:

Practice mindful eating

Slow down and pay attention to what you’re eating. Savor every bite, even for occasional sweet treats, Mason said.

“Make your favorite cookie with your favorite recipe and then make sure you’re really enjoying that cookie,” she said.

This may reduce your craving for sweets or the super-sweet flavor of artificial sweeteners. This also requires asking yourself why you’re eating or drinking certain products.

“Ask yourself, ‘Is the artificial sweetener really helping with controlling my weight gain, or am I having a diet soda now so I can have a cookie later?’” she said.

Drink more water

Many people consume most of their artificial sweeteners in beverages, Mason said. If you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, it might be easier to resist artificially sweetened beverages.

And if you need a little sweetness in your water, consider natural sources.

“Mash up a strawberry and put it in your water,” she said. “It will not give you a lot of sugar, but it will give you a lot of flavor. And then there’s not the concern about all the ingredients coming along with it.”

Eat natural ingredients and whole foods

Dietitians recommend choosing products with ingredients from whole foods, not heavily processed items. Look for granola bars sweetened with dates or other fruits, Mason said.

Pack your diet with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. Include natural sugars in moderation.

“By making more of your foods at home you gain ultimate control of ingredients, and can limit hidden sugars or other additives,” Mason said.

Build a healthy lifestyle

New studies and researching findings often present a good opportunity to take a closer look at your diet.

“If the suggestion has been made that if you consume aspartame, you may have an increased risk of cancer, then maybe that is something we need to keep in the front of our minds,” Mason said. “Ask yourself: ‘Why am I eating these baked goods or lower sugar items? Why is there artificial sweetener in my deli meat? Am I drinking a lot of soda because I’m tired?’”

Finding answers and making new discoveries about healthy eating can help you shape your choices.

“Be curious and look for opportunities in your diet or lifestyle that can reduce your reliance on artificial sweeteners,” Mason said.