The health agency is not asking consumers to stop buying products containing aspartame, nor is it asking manufacturers to stop using the sweetener. The WHO recommends practicing “moderation”.
The WHO announced on Friday that it now classifies aspartame, an artificial sweetener commonly used in soft drinks, as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” – although the acceptable daily intake remains unchanged.
“We are not advising companies to phase out products, nor are we advising consumers to stop consumption altogether,” said Francesco Branca, director of nutrition and food safety for the World Health Organization.
“We’re just advising some moderation,” he said at a news conference presenting the results of two reviews of the available evidence on aspartame.
The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) conducted its first assessment of the carcinogenicity of aspartame at a meeting in Lyon, France, June 6-13. “The working group has classified aspartame as a possible human carcinogen,” WHO said.
Due to the limited evidence available, it was placed in the Group 2B category, which referred specifically to hepatocellular carcinoma – a type of liver cancer. There was also limited evidence of cancer in experimental animals.
The Group 2B category also includes extracts of aloe vera and caffeic acid found in tea and coffee, said Paul Pharoah, a professor of cancer epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “The general public should not be concerned about the cancer risk associated with a Group 2B chemical,” he said.
IARC’s Mary Schubauer-Berigan said the limited evidence for hepatocellular carcinoma came from three studies conducted in the United States and 10 European countries. “These are the only epidemiological studies that have examined liver cancer,” she told reporters.
Branca added, “In a way, we’ve given a signal here that suggests we still need to clarify the situation much more clearly,” but it’s not “something we can dismiss” either.
9 to 14 doses per day are required to exceed the acceptable intake level
A second group, JECFA – the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives formed by the WHO and its UN counterpart, the Food and Agriculture Organization – met in Geneva from June 27 to July 6 to assess the risks associated with aspartame.
It concluded that the data it analyzed showed no reason to change the 1981 Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of zero to 40 milligrams of aspartame per kilogram of body weight.
Since a can of sugar-free soft drink typically contains 200 or 300 mg of aspartame sweetener, a 70 kg adult would therefore need to consume more than nine to 14 cans per day to exceed the ADI, barring additional aspartame intake from other sources.
“The problem lies with the bulk consumers,” said Branca. “Someone who has a soda once in a while…shouldn’t worry.”
Sweetener in sodas, chewing gum and granola
Aspartame is an artificial chemical sweetener that has been widely used in various foods and beverages since the 1980s.
It’s found in diet drinks, chewing gum, gelatin, ice cream, dairy products like yogurt, breakfast cereal, toothpaste, cough drops, and chewable vitamins.
The International Sweeteners Association said its Group 2B classification puts aspartame in the same category as kimchi and other pickles.
“JECFA has reconfirmed the safety of aspartame after thorough, comprehensive and scientifically based testing,” said ISA Director Frances Hunt-Wood.
But for Camille Dorioz, campaign manager at consumer organization Foodwatch, Friday’s update left a “bitter taste”. “A potentially carcinogenic sweetener has no place in our food and drink,” he said.
WHO Council: “Drink Water”
Back in May, the WHO stated that artificial sweeteners, which are used in many products to replace sugar, do not help weight loss and can have serious health effects.
The UN health agency has issued guidelines advising against the use of so-called sugar-free sweeteners.
Branca was asked what consumers should do given Friday’s update when trying to make the best choice between a soft drink with added sugar and a soft drink with sweeteners.
“A third option should be considered, which is to drink water instead – and limit consumption of sweetened products altogether,” he replied. “There are alternatives that do not contain free sugar or sweeteners – and these should be the products consumers should prefer.”