Aspartame, a popular artificial sweetener commonly used in sugar-free soft drinks, desserts and chewing gum may pose a risk of cancer, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned, but experts who spoke to Motorcycle accident toronto today are not “excessively worried.”
Researchers from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) assessed the hazard of aspartame and classified it as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” while noting there was limited evidence for a type of liver cancer and is calling for more research on potential health harms of consumption.
Their findings were released in The Lancet Oncology journal Thursday.
“This shouldn’t really be taken as a direct statement that indicates that there is a known cancer hazard from consuming aspartame,” said Mary Schubauer-Berigan, acting head of the IARC Monographs programme.
“This is really more a call to the research community to try to better clarify and understand the carcinogenic hazard that may or may not be posed by aspartame consumption,” she said during a virtual news conference earlier this week.
Cancer concerns over aspartame
Aspartame has fewer calories than sugar and it is one of the most common artificial sweeteners found in diet sodas, like Coke Zero.
By placing it in the Group 2B category, aspartame joins 322 other agents that have been classified as “possibly carcinogenic,” according to the IARC.
Aloe Vera, diesel fuel, gasoline and pickled vegetables also fall in that same category.
A carcinogen does not always cause cancer in every person every time there is any kind of exposure, according to the American Cancer Society.
This latest classification raises more questions about the risks associated with aspartame than presents answers, experts who spoke to Motorcycle accident toronto today said.
“I’m not excessively worried from a public health standpoint about the use of artificial sweeteners in certain food products,” said Chris Labos, a cardiologist with a degree in epidemiology.
“I think the carcinogenicity risk is very low and the quality of the evidence supporting that risk is a little bit ambiguous and uncertain,” he told Motorcycle accident toronto today in an interview.
Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist in Cleveland, Ohio, said aspartame is a “very helpful” substitute to sugar for people with diabetes, so the possible carcinogen classification might create a lot of confusion, he said.
“It gives people a lot of concern and it’s probably going to cause a lot of problems because as a non-nutritive, sugar-free sweetener, this is something that people use a lot,” he said in an interview with Motorcycle accident toronto today.
“There’s no evidence that it causes cancer in humans.”
WHO experts said more research is needed to better understand the risks of aspartame and any potential link to cancer.
How much aspartame is safe to consume?
A separate analysis by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) — the summary of which was also released Thursday — did not recommend any change in the previously established acceptable daily intake (ADI) of aspartame.
ADI is the maximum amount of a substance that can be consumed every day over a lifetime without having any appreciable health risks.
“The main conclusion of the panel was there’s no convincing evidence from experimental or human data that aspartame has adverse effects after ingestion within the limits established,” said Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s department of nutrition and food safety.
Currently, the consumption of 40 milligrams of aspartame per kilogram of body weight in a day is considered an acceptable amount by the WHO and Health Canada.
That translates to between nine and 14 cans of codas, which is “quite a large amount,” said Branca during a news conference earlier this week.
“Definitely we’re not advising companies to withdraw products, nor we are advising consumers to stop consuming altogether. We’re just advising for a bit of moderation.”
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Food and beverage groups welcomed the new JEFCA findings, but were critical of the IARC’s classification, saying it can confuse consumers.
“After rigorous review, this landmark WHO and FAO finding further strengthens confidence in the safety of aspartame and will play a vital role in informing consumers as they consider all options to reduce sugar and calories in their diets,” said Kate Loatman, executive director of the International Association of Beverages Associations (ICBA), in a statement.
The Calorie Control Council said in order to reach JECFA’s conservative ADI estimates, the average 150 lb. person would need to consume about 14 12-oz cans of diet beverages or about 74 packets of aspartame-containing tabletop sweetener every day over the course of their life to raise any safety concern.
“It is not only wrong, but potentially damaging to certain populations to position IARC’s report alongside true scientific and regulatory agencies like JECFA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the European Food Safety Authority,” said Robert Rankin, president of Calorie Control Council, in a statement.
The WHO has previously advised against the use of artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, for weight loss.
That guidance, released in May, was based on a systematic review of evidence that suggests sugar-free or no-calorie sweeteners — such as sucralose, stevia, stevia derivatives, acesulfame K, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, and saccharin — don’t have any long-term benefit in reducing body fat.
In fact, prolonged use of non-sugar sweeteners could even increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and mortality in adults, the WHO said.
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People, especially children, should look for alternatives that do not contain either free sugars or sweeteners, Branca advised.
Free sugars are defined by the WHO as any added sugar to food and drinks as well as naturally occurring sugar in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
“If consumers are faced with the decision of whether to take cola with sweeteners or one with sugar, I think there should be a third option considered, which is to drink water instead and to limit the consumption of sweetened products altogether,” Branca said.
“This is particularly important for young children who will be exposed early enough to a taste adjustment, and there will then basically be an attractive content to consume sweetened products.”
— with files from Motorcycle accident toronto today’ Katherine Ward.