Diet sodas, like Coca-Cola, commonly contain aspartame.

Health & wellbeing

Aspartame, one of the most widely used artificial sweeteners in the world, is set to be classified as a possible carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a leading global health body. This decision, expected to be announced in July, has sparked a contentious debate between the food industry, regulators, and health organizations.

Aspartame is commonly found in various products, ranging from diet sodas like Coca-Cola to chewing gum like Mars' Extra, and certain Snapple drinks.

The IARC, along with the World Health Organization's (WHO) cancer research arm, will categorize aspartame as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" for the first time. This assessment is based on a comprehensive evaluation of all available published evidence regarding its potential hazards.

It is important to note that the IARC's evaluation does not consider the safe consumption levels of a particular product. Recommendations for individual consumption come from the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization's Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), as well as national regulatory bodies. These entities provide guidelines on the safe intake of aspartame and other food additives.

Previous IARC rulings on different substances have raised concerns among consumers, leading to lawsuits and prompting manufacturers to reformulate their products or seek alternatives. Critics argue that the IARC's assessments can be confusing for the public.

Both the JECFA and the WHO committee on additives are also reviewing the use of aspartame this year. The findings from their evaluations will coincide with the IARC's decision, which will be made public on July 14th. The JECFA has previously stated that aspartame is safe for consumption within accepted daily limits. National regulators, including those in the United States and Europe, have widely supported this view.

While the IARC and JECFA assessments are currently confidential, an IARC spokesperson explained that they are complementary. The IARC's conclusion represents the initial step in understanding the carcinogenicity of a substance, while the additives committee focuses on risk assessment and determining the probability of harm under specific conditions and levels of exposure.

However, there are concerns from industry and regulators that conducting both assessments concurrently could create confusion. Letters from U.S. and Japanese regulators have called for coordination between the two bodies to avoid misunderstandings among the public. The request also suggested releasing the conclusions on the same day.

Industry representatives, such as the International Sweeteners Association (ISA) and the International Council of Beverages Associations, have expressed concerns about the IARC's review of aspartame. They argue that the IARC is not a food safety body, and its assessment is not scientifically comprehensive, heavily relying on discredited research. They believe the review may mislead consumers and deter them from choosing safe low-sugar options.

Studies on aspartame have been conducted extensively over the years. An observational study in France involving 100,000 adults found a slightly higher cancer risk among individuals who consumed larger amounts of artificial sweeteners, including aspartame. Additionally, a study from the Ramazzini Institute in Italy in the early 2000s suggested a link between aspartame and certain cancers in mice and rats. However, the first study did not prove that aspartame caused the increased cancer risk, and questions were raised about the methodology of the second study.

The IARC's June review considered approximately 1,300 studies. Aspartame is authorized for use globally by regulatory bodies that have thoroughly reviewed all available evidence. Major food and beverage companies have staunchly defended their use of aspartame, although some have made adjustments to their recipes in response to consumer preferences and health concerns.

The classification of aspartame as a possible carcinogen by the IARC aims to stimulate further research that will enable agencies, consumers, and manufacturers to draw more conclusive conclusions. However, it is expected to reignite debates surrounding the IARC's role and the overall safety of sweeteners.

In related news, last month, the WHO published guidelines advising consumers against using non-sugar sweeteners for weight control. This sparked controversy within the food industry, which argues that such sweeteners can be beneficial for individuals seeking to reduce their sugar intake.

As discussions and evaluations continue, it is important for consumers to stay informed about the latest research and guidelines from reputable health organizations and regulatory bodies.