Aspartame, one of the most widely used artificial sweeteners, will reportedly be classified as a possible carcinogen by the World Health Organization in July after years of conflicting research.
Aspartame is expected to be declared by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” on July 14, sources told Reuters.
Aspartame is one of the most common sweeteners and is popular among low calorie food and drinks like diet Coke and diet Pepsi because, although it does contain calories like regular sugar, it’s used in lower quantities because it’s 200 times sweeter.
The sweetener is used in a lot of zero-sugar and low-sugar foods such as sugar-free Jell-O; tabletop sweeteners, like Nutrasweet and Equal; Trident’s sugar-free gum and Crystal Light.IARC’s expected ruling reportedly doesn’t take into account how much of the sweetener a person can consume safely, but the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) will reportedly make that decision in a separate report.
This expected ruling comes after a 2022 study published in PLOS Medicine found a link between consuming high amounts of aspartame and an increased risk of developing breast and obesity-related cancer.
A separate study published in December 2022 found the sweetener was linked to anxiety in mice and the effects lingered for up to two generations.
The Food and Drug Administration approved aspartame’s use as a tabletop sweetener and dry base for some foods, like drinks, gelatines, dairy and puddings in 1974—it was approved as a general sweetener in 1996.
In an emailed statement to Forbes, American Beverage, which represents several companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, stood by aspartame’s safety, stating multiple food safety agencies like the FDA “continue to find aspartame safe,” and dismissing IARC as “not a food safety agency.”
JECFA declared aspartame safe to use within its acceptable daily intake (ADI) in 1981. The FDA outlined aspartame’s ADI as 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. The European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) ADI is slightly lower, coming in at 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. The FDA estimates that if all of the added sugar in the daily diet of a 132-pound person was replaced by aspartame, that person would only consume between eight and nine milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. The EFSA predicts that in order for a 132-pound person to reach their ADI, they’d have to drink 12 cans of diet soda everyday, if the soda contained the sweetener at the maximum permitted levels of use. However, because most products contain aspartame in much smaller amounts, reaching aspartame’s ADI may be difficult, as its ADI is 100 times less than the amount of aspartame found to cause health issues, according to Healthline.
This isn’t the first time a sugar substitute was found to be potentially dangerous. Earlier this year, a study published in Nature Medicine found a potential link between erythritol and an increased risk of developing cardiovascular issues, like blood clotting and heart attack. Erythritol is a popular zero-calorie sugar replacement found in popular foods like Bai drinks, Halo Top ice cream and even in fruits like watermelon, grapes and peaches. In May, WHO put out new guidelines warning against using sugar substitutes for weight control, something that has been practiced in those interested in weight loss. The guidelines pointed to potential risks, like developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and increased mortality in adults.
Aspartame has long been seen as a great sugar substitute for those with obesity and diabetes. A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association had a group of 203 participants—only some were overweight—switch from drinking sugary drinks to strictly water and artificially sweetened beverages. They divided them up into three groups: those who drank artificially sweetened drinks, like Diet Coke, and water; those who only drank water and those who drank sugary drinks. Though the researchers didn’t notice any significant weight gain or health changes in participants who were a normal weight, participants with high levels of abdominal fat showed drastic changes. They had significantly less weight gain when switched to the drinks with artificial sweeteners, and those who continued consuming sugary drinks gained an average of 10 pounds. Aspartame is recommended for use in diabetics because it doesn’t affect blood sugar levels like regular sugar does. A report published in US Endocrinology found use of low-calorie sweeteners like aspartame “can serve an important role in diabetes prevention and management.”
New Warning About Zero-Calorie Sugar Substitute: What Experts Are Saying About Erythritol (Forbes)