The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), have recently released assessments on the health impacts of aspartame, a popular non-sugar sweetener.
While the findings suggest a possible link between aspartame and cancer, JECFA also reaffirmed the acceptable daily intake (ADI) limit of 40 mg/kg body weight.
The evaluation conducted by both IARC and JECFA evaluated the available scientific literature, highlighting certain limitations in the evidence regarding cancer and other health effects associated with aspartame.
Based on IARC’s classification, aspartame is categorized under Group 2B, indicating that it is “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” due to limited evidence of cancer in humans, particularly concerning liver cancer, specifically hepatocellular carcinoma.
What is aspartame?
The IARC/JECFA joint press release explains that aspartame is an artificial sweetener that has been extensively used since the 1980s in a variety of food and beverage products.
It can be found in diet drinks, chewing gum, ice cream, yogurt, and even medications such as cough drops and chewable vitamins, amongst other things.
With a sweetness approximately 200 times greater than sugar, aspartame provides a low-calorie alternative to sweeten food and drinks.
How much aspartame is harmful?
According to JECFA, there is no convincing evidence of harm caused by aspartame when consumed within the recommended limits.
The IARC’s classification of aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic” is based on several key findings from their assessment.
They observed limited evidence for cancer in humans, limited evidence for cancer in experimental animals, and limited mechanistic evidence suggesting that aspartame exhibits certain characteristics associated with carcinogens.
In comparison to substances like tobacco, which is classified as “carcinogenic to humans” by the IARC, the evidence linking aspartame to cancer is not as conclusive.
The IARC categorizes other substances into different groups to provide further context.
For instance, red meat consumption falls into Group 2A as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Within Group 2B, the same category as aspartame, substances such as gasoline engine exhaust and lead can be found.
On the other hand, substances like coffee drinking and paracetamol are classified in Group 3 as “not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans.”
Both the IARC working group and JECFA conducted thorough reviews of the available studies pertaining to the association between aspartame and cancer in humans.
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As stated in the report, both entities “noted the observed statistically significant increases for liver cancer (specifically, hepatocellular carcinoma).”
However, it is important to note that JECFA have highlighted that these findings do not demonstrate a consistent association between aspartame consumption and a specific type of cancer.
IARC and JECFA cautioned that various factors, including “reverse causality, chance, bias and confounding by socioeconomic or lifestyle factors, or consumption of other dietary components cannot be ruled out.”
As part of a qualitative synthesis of various pieces of evidence, JECFA based their conclusions on multiple sources, including a study conducted in France from 2009 to 2021. This study revealed increased health risks among lower and higher consumers of aspartame when compared to non-consumers. These associations were observed at exposure levels 20 to 40 times lower than the current acceptable daily intake (ADI).
As per the JECFA evaluation mentioned in the WHO press release, the previously established acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 0–40 mg/kg body weight for aspartame remains unchanged.
The evaluation concluded that the data reviewed provided no sufficient reason to modify this established limit.
The committee reaffirmed the safety of consuming aspartame within this ADI limit, stating that “it is safe for individuals to consume within this limit per day.”
As per the guideline offered by the WHO, “with a can of diet soft drink containing 200 or 300 mg of aspartame, an adult weighing 70kg would need to consume more than 9–14 cans per day to exceed the acceptable daily intake, assuming no other intake from other food sources.”
What to do now?
In response to WHO’s findings, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expressed disagreement with IARC’s classification.
Emphasizing that “aspartame is one of the most studied food additives in the human food supply. FDA scientists do not have safety concerns when aspartame is used under the approved conditions.”
The international non-profit organization International Sweeteners Association (ISA), welcomed WHO’s reaffirmation of aspartame’s safety based on the evaluations by JECFA.
ISA noted that:
“These conclusions are consistent with the findings of over 90 global food safety agencies who have confirmed aspartame’s safety, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), that has reviewed aspartame twice, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).”
Frances Hunt-Wood, Secretary General of the International Sweeteners Association (ISA), underscores the role of aspartame in providing consumers with a choice to reduce sugar intake, aligning with the critical public health objective.
Hunt-Wood emphasizes, “Aspartame, like all low/no calorie sweeteners, when used as part of a balanced diet, provides consumers with choice to reduce sugar intake, a critical public health objective.”
"Aspartame, like all low/no calorie #sweeteners, when used as part of a balanced diet, provides consumers with choice to reduce sugar intake, a critical public health objective”- Frances Hunt-Wood, ISA Secretary-General
👉Read ISA statement in response to @IARCWHO & #JECFA… pic.twitter.com/W5n4AYlim6
— International Sweeteners Association (ISA) (@SweetenersAndU) July 14, 2023
“The assessments of aspartame have indicated that, while safety is not a major concern at the doses which are commonly used, potential effects have been described that need to be investigated by more and better studies.”
WHO’s classifications of substances are based on a thorough review of the available evidence, aiming to provide accurate information on potential hazards and real-life risks associated with various substances.
This evaluation calls for further research to deepen our understanding of the potential health risks associated with aspartame consumption.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Spoon of powder. Featured Photo Credit:Alexander Grey.