The World Health Organization (WHO) has released its review of the health impacts of aspartame, declaring the non-sugar sweetener as “possibly carcinogenic” but safe to consume in moderation.
The assessments were conducted by the WHO’s cancer research arm International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). JECFA has reaffirmed the acceptable daily intake of 40mg/kg body weight.
The IARC and JECFA conducted independent reviews to assess the potential carcinogenic hazard and other health risks associated with aspartame consumption. Both evaluations noted limitations in the available evidence for cancer and other health effects.
IARC classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans on the basis of limited evidence for cancer in humans, specifically, for hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer. This was the first time that IARC has evaluated aspartame and the third time for JECFA.
The announcement follows news of the reported declaration at the end of June.
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener used in a variety of food and beverage products such as diet drinks, chewing gum, gelatin, ice cream, dairy products such as yogurt, breakfast cereal, toothpaste and medications such as cough drops and chewable vitamins.
JECFA concluded that the findings indicated no sufficient reason to change the previously established acceptable daily intake of 0–40 mg/kg body weight for aspartame.
Mary Schubauer-Berigan of the IARC Monographs programme, said: “The findings of limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and animals, and of limited mechanistic evidence on how carcinogenicity may occur, underscore the need for more research to refine our understanding on whether consumption of aspartame poses a carcinogenic hazard”.
An adult weighing 70kg would need to consume more than 9–14 cans of a diet soft drink containing 200-300 mg of aspartame per day to exceed the acceptable daily intake.
Francesco Branca, director of the department of nutrition and food safety, WHO, said: “Cancer is one of the leading causes of death globally. Every year, one in six people die from cancer. Science is continuously expanding to assess the possible initiating or facilitating factors of cancer, in the hope of reducing these numbers and the human toll.”
He added: “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”.
Moez Sanaa, WHO’s head of the standards and scientific advice on food and nutrition unit, said that JECFA also considered the evidence on cancer risk in human studies and concluded that the evidence of an association between aspartame consumption and cancer in humans was not convincing.
Sanaa added: “We need better studies with longer follow-up and repeated dietary questionnaires in existing cohorts. We need randomised controlled trials, including studies of mechanistic pathways relevant to insulin regulation, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, particularly as related to carcinogenicity.”
The evaluations were based on scientific data collected from numerous sources, including peer-reviewed papers, governmental reports and studies conducted for regulatory purposes.
Robert Rankin, president of Calorie Control Council, commented: “Consumers have a strong desire for reliable and science-based information, and JECFA’s review reaffirms the overwhelming body of evidence that confirms aspartame is safe. To assert otherwise is misleading, inaccurate, and fearmongering to the nearly 540 million people globally living with diabetes and millions of others managing their body weight who rely on and/or chose products that contain low- and no-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame.”
IARC and WHO said they will continue to monitor new evidence and encourage independent research groups to develop further studies on the potential association between aspartame exposure and consumer health effects.
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