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Alternative sweeteners.Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

For the first time since the 1970s, Canadians are about to taste the sweetness of saccharin.

After years of discussion, Health Canada quietly decided last month to permit the sweetener in gum, pop and other non-alcoholic beverages, frozen desserts, alcoholic liqueurs, fruit spreads and other products. The news comes amid growing concern over the serious health risks of consuming too much sugar, including heart disease, stroke and premature death.

Still, it may come as a surprise to many who remember the controversy in the 1970s when studies linked the sweetener to cancer. Countries around the world, including the United States and Canada, decided to ban the sweetener as a food additive. (It was still permitted for sale in pharmacies as a table-top sweetener as long as it carried a warning label.)

A lot has changed since those initial studies came out. But does saccharin deserve a clean bill of health?

Against the grain

Saccharin, like aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame potassium, is an artificial sweetener. It's been around since the 1800s and became a popular alternative to sugar throughout the 20th century because it was less expensive and had no calories.

But the perception of saccharin changed after the publication of research suggesting saccharin could cause cancer – specifically, studies found it increased the incidence of bladder cancer in rats. Major restrictions on the sale and use of saccharin followed.

Since then, more studies have been done that question the link between saccharin and cancer. The studies have shown that the mechanism that causes bladder cancer in rats isn't applicable to humans. The reason, according to Health Canada, is that saccharin does not bind to DNA. Many cancer-causing substances do, which provides reassurance that saccharin is safe for consumption. Health Canada also notes that the tumours developed in rats fed high doses of the sweetener – measuring 3 per cent of their total diet – from birth and continuing for several weeks. That's not applicable to a real-world scenario with humans. Other studies have also shown that saccharin consumption in humans doesn't seem to have caused any increase in bladder-cancer rates.

The evidence was enough to convince countries, including the U.S., to reverse their position. In 2001, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared saccharin safe for human consumption and in 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took saccharin off of its list of hazardous chemicals. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, also downgraded saccharin as non-carcinogenic to humans.

Until now, Canada has remained an outlier, refusing to allow saccharin back on the list of approved food additives. But in 2007, the department began formal discussions and consultations to put the sweetener back in rotation. As widely expected, Health Canada made the decision official last month, which means that Canadian consumers may soon see saccharin popping up in some artificially sweetened products. In Canada, companies that use artificial sweeteners are required to include that information on the product label, which makes it easier for consumers to know what is in their food.

Sugar-coating the debate

Not everyone is happy to see saccharin back in Canada. Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist with the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, argues that anything that may cause cancer in lab animals shouldn't be deemed safe for humans.

The advocacy organization has, for many years, spoken out on the potential risks of artificial sweeteners and urges consumers to avoid saccharin. Lefferts notes that the mechanism that causes bladder cancer in rats may not apply to humans, but that doesn't mean saccharin doesn't pose a risk.

"It's a little bit unclear what's going on there," she said. "But why take the risk?"

The Internet is full of sites arguing against the use of any artificial sweeteners. The CSPI's stance is quite balanced, when you consider the number of fear-mongering Web pages that warn of the deadly risks of drinking an artificially sweetened can of pop.

The sweet truth

But the tired debate over the safety of sweeteners misses a much more important point. Whether or not your interpretation of the science leaves you convinced artificial sweeteners like saccharin are safe, we shouldn't be consuming much of them in the first place.

Artificial sweeteners are attractive because they let us eat and drink sweet treats without the caloric guilt. For people with diabetes, they also allow the freedom to eat foods that would otherwise be off-limits.

But, like many things in life, the idea that most of us can have our sugar-free cake and eat it too is simply too good to be true. Studies show that people who consume foods and beverages sweetened artificially are actually driven to eat more, which could be because the sweeteners don't make the body feel full, or because the sweetness promotes the desire to eat.

While the underlying mechanism explaining this may still be unclear, the message to consumers is to limit sugar and artificial sweeteners. Cutting down on sweets can be tough at first, but the body does acclimatize to the change.

Too much sugar can be deadly. But a diet too rich in artificial sweeteners may have unintended consequences on waistlines and long-term health.

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