Aspartame, a popular artificial sweetener found in thousands of products including diet beverages and sugar-free gum, has been classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” for the first time by a semi-independent committee of the World Health Organization.
However alarming the label may sound, it does not imply that your diet soda causes cancer.
The designation indicates that some of the research reviewed by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) suggests a potential link between aspartame and liver cancer, but the science is far from conclusive, unlike for substances like asbestos or tobacco.
Aspartame is one of the most researched food additives available. Multiple regulatory agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration of the United States, have repeatedly stated that aspartame is safe for human consumption when used in accordance with specific guidelines. In fact, a distinct WHO committee of experts conducted a risk assessment on aspartame and concluded on Thursday that WHO’s own guidelines do not require modification.
Some scientists and food and beverage manufacturers are concerned that WHO’s label of “possibly carcinogenic” will confuse consumers, but the agency stated that it hopes this label will encourage scientists to conduct additional research on aspartame and its potential link to cancer.
American Beverage, an association representing the non-alcoholic beverage industry, stated in a statement, “There is a broad consensus among scientists and regulators that aspartame is safe. It is a conclusion reached repeatedly by international food safety agencies.”
The association stated that safety is always the industry’s top priority.
Because international food safety agencies, including the FDA, continue to deem aspartame safe, we are confident in the safety of our products.
What is aspartame?
Aspartame is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners worldwide.
This product has been available for decades. As reported by the Calorie Control Council, a global organization that represents the low- and reduced-calorie food and beverage industry, aspartame is present in approximately 6,000 products worldwide.
Aspartame can be found in toothpastes and medications, but it is typically found on the labels of “diet” or “sugar-free” products.
Aspartame is found in sodas such as Diet Coke, Coke Zero, and Pepsi Zero Sugar, as well as in many low-calorie coffee sweeteners such as Equal and NutraSweet, and in some beverages. Aspartame is commonly found in sugar-free salad dressing, low-calorie ice cream, gelatins, and puddings such as Jell-O Sugar-Free Instant Pudding. Also present in sugar-free gum such as Extra.
Although the World Health Organization stated in a separate decision in May that people should not rely on non-sugar sweeteners for weight control, aspartame is commonly used in “diet” drinks because it contains fewer calories than conventional sugar. Aspartame is approximately 200 times sweeter than ordinary table sugar, so less of it is required in products.
If you added a package of Equal to your coffee, it would be approximately as saccharine as two teaspoons of sugar. The Equal packet contains 4 calories, while two teaspoons of sugar contain 32 calories.
Initial bafflement concerning aspartame
There has always been some confusion surrounding aspartame.
The FDA approved the use of aspartame in certain foods and beverages in 1974, but the decision was suspended for a few years due to contradictory studies, objections to its approval, and doubts about the validity of the initial studies. When an early animal study suggested that aspartame may have caused brain tumors in rodents, some scientists were alarmed.
After an exhaustive investigation, the FDA eventually permitted the marketing of aspartame in dry foods in 1981. In that year, the FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives established acceptable daily intake levels.
Since 1981, the WHO has recommended a daily maximum of 40 milligrams of aspartame per kilogram of body weight. In 1983, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established a guideline of 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight for the United States.
To ingest that much aspartame, a person would need to consume a great deal of soda or food containing the sweetener.
According to American Beverage, diet beverages typically contain 100 milligrams of aspartame per can, on average.
According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation of 40 milligrams of aspartame per kilogram of body weight per day, a person weighing the average American weight of 83 kilograms or 184 pounds could consume up to 33 cans per day and remain within the recommended limits. The US recommendation of 50 milligrams per kilogram would allow a person weighing 184 pounds to consume more than 40 cans.
How the classification method operates
Hundreds of studies have examined the health effects of aspartame.
As science has progressed, the FDA and other regulatory bodies have reexamined how safe it is despite all the research indicating that it is secure. This was the first time that WHO’s independent cancer expert panel had decided to formally examine the accumulated evidence over the years.
IARC, the WHO’s cancer research branch, assesses the risk posed by this science. The committee investigates whether substances, such as chemicals, viruses, and food additives, can cause cancer. Dr. Mary Schubauer-Berigan, the acting director of the IARC Monographs Programme, explains that this type of review occurs every five years. In 2015, this panel placed processed meats such as hot dogs and sausages in the same cancer category as tobacco.
For its evaluation of aspartame, the committee examined laboratory data, animal study data, and human data. One of the 100,000 adult studies conducted in France in 2022 revealed that those who consumed a lot of foods or beverages containing artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, had a modestly increased risk of developing cancer. It was an observational study, so it was not possible to determine whether the sweetener caused the increased cancer risk. The study also relied on participants to recall and record what they ate and drank, and such self-reported research is sometimes regarded as less reliable.
Aspartame caused leukemia and lymphoma in rodents and rats, according to a 2020 study that reevaluated previous research from Italy’s Ramazzini Institute. However, scientists point out that humans are not rodents or mice, and the National Toxicology Program has not found a link between aspartame and cancer in the majority of its animal studies.
Wednesday at a news conference, Schubauer-Berigan encouraged scientists to conduct more and greater research on the subject.
“Despite consistent positive findings in these three studies, the working group concluded that chance bias and confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable competence, and thus they concluded that the evidence was limited,” she explained. Based on a series of studies with mice and rats, the working group also concluded that there was insufficient evidence of malignancy in experimental animals. Additionally, there was limited mechanistic evidence that aspartame exhibits important carcinogenic properties.”
Dr. Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety and a member of the group that assessed the danger of aspartame, stated that his committee reached the same conclusion.
“The panel’s principal conclusion was that there is no convincing evidence from experimental or human data that aspartame has adverse effects after ingestion, within the limits established by the previous committee, which is the acceptable daily intake of 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. The committee essentially reaffirmed the permissible daily intake range of zero to forty milligrams per kilogram of body weight, he said.
It was not feasible to demonstrate a general toxic effect, he said, because the studies produced contradictory findings.
“It was also impossible to obtain convincing or consistent evidence from animal studies,” Branca stated.
The majority of the 12 animal studies analyzed by the committee yielded negative results. Those who discovered a cancer connection were limited in their design and data interpretation quality. The epidemiological studies on humans revealed some cancer effects, such as liver, breast, and lymphoma, as well as some effects on type 2 diabetes, but the studies were observational, so there was no evidence of cause and effect.
“It cannot be ruled out that there are effects that confound the results, especially the exposure estimate,” Branca said.
What it means in the real world‘
Branca noted that there is a third option, not because of any cancer risk but because of general concerns about obesity, when asked whether people should consider consuming sodas with sugar instead of aspartame.
“If consumers have to choose between drinking cola with artificial sweeteners or one with sugar, I believe water should be considered as a third alternative,” he said. It is crucial to limit the consumption of sweet foods and beverages, regardless of whether they contain natural or artificial sugar, he stated.
Branca emphasized that this was especially essential for young children, who, according to studies, consume an excessive amount of sweetened products. Avoiding saccharine foods is a healthier choice.
Some scientists who were not engaged in the WHO decision-making process are concerned that the term “possibly carcinogenic” could alarm people unnecessarily.
Dr. Ryan Marino, a medical toxicology expert at University Hospitals in Cleveland, stated, “Although this issue has received a great deal of attention, the concerns are probably exaggerated.”
A nutrition and epidemiology associate professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health stated that consumers need not necessarily be concerned.
“I believe there is insufficient evidence to conclude either that aspartame is carcinogenic or that it is not as carcinogenic,” he said.
Dr. Thomas Galligan, chief scientist for food additives and supplements at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, stated that his organization has long advised consumers to avoid aspartame due to potential cancer risks. The center has been urging the IARC to evaluate aspartame for years, and he stated that the declaration should “ring alarm bells for consumers” and the FDA.
The FDA is not required to review its decisions regarding aspartame in light of the WHO’s decision, but according to Galligan, no level of cancer risk from food additives is acceptable under US law.
“No matter how big or small, that’s the law of the land right now,” he stated. We believe that everyone should take this matter seriously.
Dr. Allison Sylvetsky, associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, believes that a broader question should be asked regarding noncaloric sweeteners in general.
“Even if they’re safe, there are a number of questions about whether or not they’re actually useful for their intended purposes, such as weight management or disease prevention. “I believe that if people are concerned, the most prudent course of action is to choose alternatives without added sugar,” she said. Aspartame is not a necessary component of a healthy diet. It is devoid of nutritional value.
She added, “Choosing unsweetened alternatives is likely the only viable option.”
Apart from all this you can enjoy Champagne which is a good option.