Aspartame, a widely used artificial sweetener in thousands of products such as Diet Coke, chewing gum and ice-cream, may soon be labelled as a possible cancer risk by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to reports.
The WHO’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), has conducted a safety review of aspartame and will publish its report next month. It is expected to classify the sweetener as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, meaning there is some evidence linking it to cancer, but that it is limited.
The move could spark controversy and concern among consumers, manufacturers and regulators, who have long considered aspartame safe to consume within accepted daily limits.
What is aspartame and why is it used?
Aspartame is a synthetic compound that is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. It was discovered in 1965 and approved for use in the 1980s. It is commonly used as a low-calorie alternative to sugar in diet beverages, desserts, chewing gum, breakfast cereals and cough drops.
Aspartame is composed of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, which are naturally found in foods such as meat, dairy and fruits. When consumed, it is broken down into these amino acids and methanol, a type of alcohol that is also found in fruits and vegetables.
Aspartame has been authorised for use by regulators around the world, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). They have reviewed hundreds of studies on the safety of aspartame and concluded that it does not pose any health risks at normal consumption levels.
What are the concerns about aspartame and cancer?
The concerns about aspartame and cancer stem from some animal studies that suggested that high doses of aspartame could cause lymphomas, leukemias and brain tumours in rats and mice. However, these studies have been criticised for their design, methodology and relevance to humans.
The IARC has previously evaluated aspartame in 2006 and found no evidence that it was carcinogenic to humans. However, it decided to re-evaluate it this year based on new data and public interest.
The IARC’s classification of aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans would mean that there is some evidence of an association between exposure to the agent and cancer in humans or experimental animals. However, it does not imply that the agent causes cancer or that it poses a significant risk to human health at normal consumption levels.
The IARC’s assessment is based on all the published evidence available, but it does not take into account how much of a product a person can safely consume. This advice comes from a separate WHO expert committee on food additives, known as JECFA (the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization’s Expert Committee on Food Additives), which has also been reviewing aspartame use this year.
JECFA has previously said that aspartame is safe to consume within accepted daily limits. For example, an adult weighing 60 kg (132 pounds) would have to drink between 12 and 36 cans of diet soda – depending on the amount of aspartame in the beverage – every day to be at risk. JECFA is expected to announce its findings on the same day that the IARC makes public its decision – on July 14.
What are the implications of the IARC’s decision?
The IARC’s decision could have implications for consumers, manufacturers and regulators of products containing aspartame. It could raise awareness and concern among consumers about the potential health effects of artificial sweeteners and lead them to seek more information or alternatives. It could also trigger lawsuits from consumers who claim they have developed cancer due to exposure to aspartame.
Manufacturers of products containing aspartame could face pressure to reformulate their products or switch to other sweeteners. However, this could be challenging due to the availability, cost, taste and safety of other options. Some manufacturers have already started to use natural sweeteners such as stevia or monk fruit in some of their products.
Regulators of food safety could also face pressure to review their standards and recommendations for aspartame use. However, they may not change their stance unless there is new evidence that shows a clear causal link between aspartame and cancer in humans at realistic exposure levels.
The IARC’s decision is not binding or enforceable by law, but it could influence public opinion and policy making. The IARC has faced criticism for causing alarm about hard-to-avoid substances or situations that it has classified as possibly or probably carcinogenic to humans, such as working overnight, consuming red meat and using mobile phones.
The IARC and JECFA have said that their evaluations are complementary and that they will make their results available together on July 14. Until then, consumers, manufacturers and regulators may have to wait and see what the final verdict on aspartame is.
The World Health Organization’s forthcoming declaration labeling aspartame as a possible carcinogen has sparked significant discussions about the safety of consuming this artificial sweetener. While studies and controversies surrounding aspartame continue, it is essential to make informed choices regarding our dietary habits. By considering moderation, reading labels, consulting healthcare professionals, and staying updated on research, consumers can navigate the concerns associated with aspartame and make choices that align with their individual health goals.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: Is aspartame safe to consume?
A: Yes, aspartame is considered safe for consumption within the recommended daily intake levels established by regulatory agencies worldwide, including the WHO.
Q: Can aspartame cause cancer?
A: The current scientific evidence does not support a causal relationship between aspartame consumption and cancer. Extensive research studies have failed to find any conclusive evidence linking aspartame to cancer in humans.
Q: Should I avoid consuming Diet Coke because of aspartame?
A: There is no need to avoid consuming Diet Coke or other products containing aspartame based on the current scientific knowledge. Aspartame has undergone rigorous safety assessments and is considered safe for consumption within the recommended limits.
Q: Are there any health risks associated with aspartame?
A: For the general population, aspartame is considered safe when consumed in moderation. However, individuals with a rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU) need to avoid aspartame, as they cannot metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine, which is one of the components of aspartame.
Q: What are the recommended daily intake levels for aspartame?
A: The acceptable daily intake (ADI) for aspartame is set by regulatory authorities based on extensive scientific research. The ADI for aspartame is established at levels far below the amount that would pose a health risk, even for high consumers.
Q: Should I be concerned about the claims regarding aspartame and cancer?
A: It is natural to have concerns when it comes to food safety. However, it is important to base your conclusions on reliable scientific evidence and the conclusions of reputable organizations like the World Health Organization. The current scientific consensus is that aspartame, when consumed within recommended limits, is safe for human consumption.
(1) Exclusive: WHO’s cancer research agency to say aspartame sweetener a …. https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/whos-cancer-research-agency-say-aspartame-sweetener-possible-carcinogen-sources-2023-06-29/.
(2) WHO says Aspartame ‘probable carcinogen’ sweetener; Commonly used in Diet Coke, Mars Bar. Products you should avoid. https://www.livemint.com/news/world/who-says-aspartame-probable-carcinogen-sweetener-commonly-used-in-diet-coke-mars-bar-products-you-should-avoid-11688096468226.html.
(3) Aspartame sweetener, used in Diet Coke, likely to be declared as possible carcinogen. https://www.theweek.in/news/world/2023/06/29/aspartame-sweetener-used-in-diet-coke-likely-to-be-declared-as-possible-carcinogen.html.
(4) World Health Organization: Aspartame sweetener, used in Diet Coke, a possible carcinogen, per report. https://www.msn.com/en-us/health/nutrition/world-health-organization-aspartame-sweetener-used-in-diet-coke-a-possible-carcinogen-per-report/ar-AA1ddubx.
(5) Aspartame sweetener to be declared possible cancer risk by WHO, say …. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2023/jun/29/aspartame-artificial-sweetener-possible-cancer-risk-carcinogenic.