The cancer research agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified the commonly used artificial sweetener aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” However, another UN Committee has reaffirmed that there is a safe daily level of consumption for aspartame.
The assessment was conducted by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), which is part of WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization. This marks the first public intervention by the UN health agency on the widely used sweetener.
Aspartame has been used in various food and beverage products since the 1980s, including diet drinks, chewing gum, ice cream, yogurt, breakfast cereals, toothpaste, and medications like cough drops and chewable vitamins.
The assessments conducted by IARC and JECFA indicate that there is “limited evidence” suggesting that aspartame could cause cancer. Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at WHO, stated that while safety is generally not a major concern at commonly used doses, there are potential effects that need further investigation through better studies.
JECFA concluded that aspartame remains safe for consumption at recommended levels. An average adult weighing around 70 kilograms (150 pounds) would need to consume more than 9-14 cans of soft drinks daily to exceed the recommended intake, assuming no intake from other sources.
The IARC classified aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B)” based on limited evidence of cancer in humans (specifically hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer). There was also limited evidence of cancer in experimental animals and limited evidence regarding potential mechanisms for causing cancer.
The findings highlight the need for further research to better understand whether the consumption of aspartame poses a carcinogenic risk. The evaluations conducted by IARC and JECFA were based on data from various sources, including peer-reviewed papers, governmental reports, and studies conducted for regulatory purposes. Independent experts reviewed these studies, and both committees ensured the independence and reliability of their work.
In response to the studies, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that it disagrees with IARC’s conclusion and emphasized that aspartame is one of the most studied food additives in the human food supply. The FDA does not have safety concerns when aspartame is used under approved conditions. Health Canada and the European Food Safety Authority also consider aspartame safe at current permitted levels.
IARC and WHO stated that they will continue to monitor new evidence and encourage independent research groups to conduct further studies on the potential association between aspartame exposure and consumer health effects.
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