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This week’s announcement by an agency of the World Health Organization that the artificial sweetener aspartame – used in low-calorie products such as Diet Coke, Trident gum and sugar-free gelatin – is « probably carcinogenic for humans » has led many to question whether the food additive is safe to consume.
Thursday’s WHO announcement International Agency for Research on Canceror IARC, reclassifies aspartame, which has been in widespread use since the 1980s and is sold under brand names such as NutraSweet and Equal.
At a press conference in Geneva, Dr. Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, said the concern was only with « heavy consumers » of diet soda and other aspartame-containing foods and said IARC had simply « raised a flag. » for more research to do.
Dr Mary Schubauer-Berigan, a senior IARC official, stressed that « it really shouldn’t be taken as a direct statement indicating that there is a known risk of cancer from consuming aspartame. »
The recommended acceptable daily allowance for aspartame has not changed
Meanwhile, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), which is jointly administered by WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), said its acceptable daily intake of aspartame has not changed. He says that to exceed that limit, an adult weighing 154 pounds would need to consume nine to 14 cans of a diet soda containing 200 or 300 mg of aspartame.
THE The US Food and Drug Administration says so he is aware of the findings from both IARC and JECFA, but that « doesn’t mean that aspartame is actually linked to cancer. »
WHO uses a four-level classification system: carcinogenic; probably carcinogenic; possibly carcinogenic; and non-carcinogenic.
AS an article in Science Notes« Other substances classified as ‘possible carcinogens’ include aloe vera extracts, traditional Asian pickled vegetables, some vehicle fuels and some chemicals used in dry cleaning, woodworking and printing. IARC has also classified red meat as ‘probably carcinogenic’ and processed meat as ‘carcinogenic' ».
Experts say more research is needed
« This means more research is needed to ascertain whether there is a link to aspartame, » says Marjorie McCullough, senior scientific director of epidemiology research at the American Cancer Society.
Toxicologist Daniele Wikoff, a principal scientist at ToxStrategies, was involved in a series of studies on aspartame commissioned by the American Beverage Association, or ABA, an advocacy group representing the beverage industry. He says the bottom line coming out of Thursday’s press conference in Geneva « is basically that there is no change. »
The aspartame studies cited by the IARC « are really a small, tiny part of the overall evidence base. » The full picture « is much broader, demonstrating security, » says Wikoff. « The vast majority of these studies support the lack of association » between aspartame and cancer.
Kevin Keane, president and interim chief executive officer of the ABA, says it is « disappointing » that the IARC has sown confusion in the minds of consumers. « The FDA and 95 food safety agencies around the world have found aspartame to be safe, » he says. « Consumers should be confident going forward. »
However, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and professor in Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, describes research into the effects of aspartame on humans as « woefully inadequate. »
He points to the « very small number » of randomized controlled trials examining aspartame and other artificial sweeteners. « What’s concerning is that while there has been an explosion in their use in food, there hasn’t been an explosion in the science of making sure they’re safe. »
Consumers should still limit regular sugary soda
Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, is also concerned about how well aspartame’s possible effects have been studied. He says the problem is twofold.
“It’s difficult to do studies of free-living populations to get a good estimate of how much people actually consume,” he says.
Another challenge, Hu says, is that in the case of rare cancers like liver cancer, which WHO has specifically noted, researchers need ‘hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions of people to follow up and to get sufficient statistical power to obtain reliable data ». answers ».
The focus on aspartame has been primarily low-calorie diet sodas, but what about its use in other beverages?
« If you put two packets of sweeteners in your coffee or tea, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for the vast majority of people, » says Hu.
Per Mozaffarian of Tuft, despite his concerns, says that for someone who can’t break a soda habit, it’s still better to drink the diet variety. « We know that high amounts of regular soda are really bad for weight gain or obesity or diabetes risk for heart attack events. »
« So… yeah, better go on a diet [soda]she says. « But it’s still better to switch from the diet to unsweetened sparkling water. »