Are Sugary Drinks Linked to Liver Cancer?

By Pat Carragher - August 14, 2023

A new study is trying to determine whether women who drink sugar-sweetened beverages every day are at greater risk of developing liver cancer and chronic liver disease. The study, published in JAMA Network Open, looked at nearly 100,000 postmenopausal women who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative.

Women in the study reported their daily soft drink and fruit drink consumption, not including fruit juice. After three years they also reported artificially sweetened drink consumption. They were followed for a median of more than two decades. Researchers looked at self-reported liver cancer incidence and death due to chronic liver disease, including fibrosis, cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis.

Results showed that 6.8% of women who participated in the study drank one or more sugar-sweetened beverages every day. Of those women, 85% had a higher risk of liver cancer and a 68% higher risk of dying from chronic liver disease compared with those who had fewer than three sugar-sweetened beverages per month.

“The first thing that struck me was that they found an association with sugar-sweetened beverages, but not artificially sweetened beverages,” said Dr. Gina DeNicola, interim chair of the Department of Metabolism and Physiology and leader of the Metabolism Program at Moffitt Cancer Center. “It’s interesting considering aspartame was recently determined to be a potential carcinogen. That may have been potentially overblown so it’s nice that this is such a large study and it found no evidence of risk.”

Dr. Gina DeNicola, Interim Chair, Department of Metabolism and Physiology
Dr. Gina DeNicola, Interim Chair, Department of Metabolism and Physiology

According to DeNicola, there are several possible reasons that could lead to increased cancer risks from drinking sugar-sweetened beverages.

“One of the sugars that’s present is fructose, and that can be stored as fat in the liver,” DeNicola said. “That fat can cause a lot of inflammation and damage to the liver, which can lead to the risk of cancer formation.”

Gut microbiome can also play a role in potentially developing liver disease. The bacteria in the gut can process that sugar, which makes the building blocks for fat. While this process doesn’t start in the liver, it can have an influence on the entire body, including liver function.

“There are also the metabolic changes,” DeNicola said. “The potential for diabetes and insulin resistance can also occur when you’re drinking a lot of sugar. These could all potentially play a role.”

The study’s authors said more research is needed to confirm the risk association and determine why sugary drinks seem to increase the risk of liver cancer and disease. According to the researchers, approximately 65% of adults in the U.S. consume sugar-sweetened beverages each day.

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