Aspartame, a common artificial sweetener used in thousands of foods, has been declared “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization, while noting that “safety is not a major concern” in the amounts people typically consume.
The WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, has classified the sweetener as a Group 2B based on “limited data on cancer in humans,” specifically hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer, according to a press release.
“Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. One in six people die of cancer every year. Science is constantly expanding to evaluate the possible initiating or contributing factors of cancer in the hope of reducing these numbers and the loss of life. Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of the WHO Division of Nutrition and Food Safety, said in a statement on Thursday. “Evaluations of aspartame have shown that while safety at commonly used doses is not a major concern, potential effects have been described that need to be explored in more and higher quality studies.”
Reuters first reported last month that the decision was expected.
In addition to the IARC classification, the United Nations Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JEFCA) also provided an overview of what this means for human risk, while maintaining existing recommendations for acceptable daily intakes.
“Our results do not indicate that episodic consumption should pose a risk to most consumers,” Branca added at a press briefing. “We do not advise companies to abandon products and we do not advise consumers to completely stop their consumption. We’re just advising you to exercise moderation.”
Robert Rankin, president of the Calorie Control Council, an international association that represents the low-calorie and low-calorie food and beverage industry, said in a statement to CBS News that the JEFCA review confirms the overwhelming amount of evidence that aspartame is safe.
“Stating otherwise is misleading, inaccurate and fearful to the nearly 540 million people worldwide living with diabetes and the millions of other people who are in control of their body weight who rely on and/or choose foods that contain low-calorie or no-calorie sweeteners such as like aspartame. ‘ Rankin said.
He added that IARC is not a regulatory or food safety authority.
“IARC is looking for substances that have the potential to cause cancer without regard to actual food intake and have found that many things, such as drinking hot water and working at night, are likely to be carcinogenic. This is not only wrong, but also potentially dangerous for certain populations. position the IARC report next to real scientific and regulatory bodies such as JECFA, the Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority.”
What is aspartame?
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener 200 times more powerful than regular granulated sugar that is used in thousands of products on grocery store shelves, from sodas and beverage mixes to low-calorie condiments and desserts.
Aspartame entered the market as a low-calorie sweetener in 1981 and was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in foods, with the agency concluding that the additive is “safe for the general population.”
“Aspartame is one of the most studied food additives in human food,” the FDA said in a statement. “To determine the safety of aspartame, the FDA reviewed more than 100 studies aimed at identifying possible toxic effects, including studies evaluating effects on the reproductive and nervous systems, carcinogenicity and metabolism.”
What is a carcinogen?
The National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health defines a carcinogen as “any substance that causes cancer.” Carcinogens can occur naturally in the environment or can be created by humans, explains the National Institutes of Health, and usually work by interacting with a cell’s DNA to cause mutations.
The IARC definition of “possibly carcinogenic to humans” means that the group believes there is “some evidence that it may cause cancer in humans, but this is far from conclusive at this time.” Over 320 other items, from exhaust gases to aloe vera and textile work, fall under this classification.
To put the situation in perspective, an additional 220 substances have been identified as definitive or probable human carcinogens based on strong evidence of an association with cancer.
“Exposure to a carcinogen does not necessarily mean you will get cancer. A number of factors influence whether a person who is exposed to a carcinogen will develop cancer,” the National Institutes of Health’s National Institutes of Human Genome Research website notes.
How much aspartame is safe to consume?
The FDA has established an acceptable daily intake (ADI), or amount of a substance that is considered safe for daily consumption during a person’s lifetime, for each of the six sweeteners approved as dietary supplements.
For aspartame, the ADI is 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day according to the FDA regulation and 40 milligrams according to the UN recommendations.
“The average 150-pound person would have to consume about 14 12-ounce cans of diet drinks, or about 74 packets of aspartame-containing tabletop sweetener, every day during their lifetime to raise any safety concerns,” Rankin said in a statement. . . “Clearly, this level of consumption is unrealistic, not recommended, and not in line with the intended use of these ingredients.”
For the general public, there is “no need” to worry about the WHO’s findings or classifications, Dr. Ernest Hawke, vice president and head of cancer prevention and population sciences at the University of Texas Anderson Cancer Center, told CBS News. .
“Their strongest signal to scientists is the suggestion that better research is needed,” he added. “Only after much more research has been done will we be able to determine whether aspartame or other similar substances are associated with a compelling risk of cancer.”
Elizabeth Napolitano contributed to this report.