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It’s often hard to determine fact from fiction when it comes to your health, wellbeing and cancer risk. Have you ever asked: will this cause cancer? Should I follow a special diet? Are artificial sweeteners healthier than sugar?

Cancer Council SA is a great place to turn to for answers to these questions as our dedicated researchers are guaranteed to provide evidence-based information you can trust.

So, we thought we’d give you the truth about some common cancer questions:

Does eating too much red meat give you cancer?

There is evidence that red meat and processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer and the more you eat, the higher the risk. However, moderate consumption of unprocessed lean red meat can be incorporated as part of a healthy diet.

Cancer Council recommends:

  • Moderate consumption of lean red meat. This means a palm-sized serve up to three or four times a week. (no more than 455g cooked / 700g raw per week).
  • Limiting or avoiding processed meats such as frankfurts, salami, bacon and ham.
  • Limiting consumption of burnt or charred meat.
  • Choosing lean cuts of meat and chicken and eating more fish as well as plenty of plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables, legumes/beans and wholegrain cereals.

Despite concerns about red meat and cancer, Cancer Council recognises that lean red meat is an important contributor to dietary iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein.

Should I eat organic food to prevent cancer?

Insufficient fruit and vegetable consumption is estimated to cause around 1,800 cancer cases in Australia each year. There is no evidence that organic produce is higher in the nutrients that help to prevent cancer than fruit and vegetables farmed in conventional ways.

People may choose to eat organic foods for several reasons—taste, environmental factors, reported health benefits or personal preference. However, organic food is generally more expensive than other fruit and vegetables which may be a barrier for some. Food supply in Australia is strictly regulated. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) sets acceptable levels for all types of chemical residues, including pesticides, which are allowed in food products sold in Australia. These levels are regularly reviewed and adjusted by FSANZ according to the evidence to ensure our safety.

Cancer Council recommends that people aim to have two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables each day. Canned, fresh or frozen varieties, it all counts. This will help to reduce your risk of cancers associated with low fruit and vegetable intake.

So, whether organic or not, aim for two and five every day.

Can artificial sweeteners cause cancer?

Artificial sweeteners are used as a replacement for sugar in food and drinks, as they are very sweet and contain fewer kilojoules (energy). There are several types of artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, sucralose, cyclamate, and saccharin.

There is limited evidence to suggest that artificial sweeteners cause cancer.

What about Aspartame?

The intense sweetener aspartame, often used in ‘low-sugar’ and ‘diet’ drinks, and other products like confectionery, and yoghurt, has been classified by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency on Research on Cancer (IARC) as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’. This is based on limited evidence that consumption of aspartame is associated with an increased risk of liver cancer.

What does this mean for the average person?

This means that aspartame has been found to be associated with an increased risk of liver cancer in humans, but only when consumed in high amounts.

The current Acceptable Daily Intake of aspartame is 40 mg of aspartame per kilogram of body weight per day.

For example, for a can of diet soft drink containing 200 mg of aspartame, a person weighing 70 kg would need to consume more than 14 cans per day to exceed this limit, assuming no other aspartame was consumed from other foods.

Thankfully, research shows that the vast majority of Australians are consuming well below the Acceptable Daily Intake for aspartame.

Food supply in Australia is strictly regulated and the intense sweeteners used in Australia have not been found to increase the risk of cancer in the amounts currently consumed. Additionally, a recent survey (2019) found that the use of aspartame in Australian food and drink products has decreased.

What about other artificial sweeteners?

Evidence suggests that other artificial sweeteners, saccharin and cyclamate, found in ‘diet’ drinks and some foods, are unlikely to cause cancer. Saccharin is used in tablets that substitute for sugar and is sometimes contained in post-mix diet soft drinks from fountain dispensers to help extend shelf life.

In rats, high doses of saccharin have been shown to cause the formation of bladder stones that can lead to bladder cancer. However, saccharin consumption does not appear to cause the formation of bladder stones in humans. If saccharin does increase cancer risk in humans, it would be at doses many times greater than the amounts typically consumed.

Large population studies have not reported increases in bladder cancers among people using saccharin, and the US National Toxicology Program has removed it from the list of established human carcinogens. In Australia, FSANZ sets acceptable levels for all types of additives including artificial sweeteners, which are allowed to be used in drinks. These levels are regularly reviewed and adjusted by FSANZ according to the evidence to ensure our safety.

Remember—when it comes to diet, there are steps you can take to reduce your cancer risk, but there is no one food that can protect against cancer. A healthy, balanced diet that includes a variety of foods from the five food groups is always best.

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