The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified the popular artificial sweetener aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The classification has sparked a heated debate over the safety of aspartame, which is commonly found in diet sodas and other sugar-free products.
The IARC’s classification, based on “limited evidence,” suggests a potential link between aspartame and cancer. However, the agency’s food safety group maintains that the evidence is not convincing enough to warrant immediate concern. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also disagrees with the IARC’s classification, saying that aspartame is one of the most studied food additives and is safe when used within approved conditions.
Dr Francesco Branca, the director of the WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, underlined the need for moderation rather than complete avoidance of aspartame. He stated, “We’re just advising for a bit of moderation.”
Aspartame, sold under names like Equal, Nutrasweet, and Sugar Twin, is widely used as a sugar substitute in various products, including diet sodas, chewing gums, and low-calorie desserts. It was first approved by the FDA in 1974 but faced controversy in subsequent years due to concerns raised by animal studies. However, in 1981, the FDA re-approved its use, asserting that human consumption levels were well below any toxic thresholds.
The debate surrounding aspartame’s safety stems from a mix of animal studies and observational studies in humans. A study by Italian researchers in 2010 suggested a link between aspartame and liver and lung cancer in male mice, while a Danish study found an association between artificially sweetened drinks and premature births in pregnant women. However, these studies have faced criticism for using higher amounts of aspartame than humans typically consume, and observational studies cannot directly establish causation.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies substances into different groups based on their potential to cause cancer. Aspartame falls into Group 2b, which designates substances as “possible carcinogens.” It is important to note that exposure to a possible carcinogen does not guarantee the development of cancer.
Amidst the ongoing controversy, the WHO and other health bodies have set the maximum acceptable daily intake of aspartame at 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. This level is considered quite high, and exceeding it would require consuming a significant amount of aspartame-containing products.
Experts stress the importance of further research to better understand the potential health impacts of aspartame. While the IARC’s classification raises concerns, it is essential to consider the totality of evidence and approach the topic with caution.