Does Aspartame cause cancer? This popular sweetener could be classified as a possible carcinogen by WHO – but there’s no cause for panic!
This year, aspartame has been re-evaluated by two WHO agencies: the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). The two agencies have very different remits The IARC looks at hazard and JECFA at risk. This distinction is important. For example, sunshine is a hazard as it can cause skin cancer, but the risk depends on the time spent in the sun and whether one uses sunscreen.
The IARC’s job is to investigate possible causes of cancer and identify hazards. In its reports (called monographs), it reviews all available evidence and classifies hazards into one of four categories:
- Group 1: carcinogenic to humans (sufficient evidence for cancer in humans)
- Group 2a: probably carcinogenic to humans (limited evidence in humans, sufficient evidence in animals)
- Group 2b: possibly carcinogenic to humans (limited evidence in humans, insufficient evidence in animals)
- Group 3: not classifiable (inadequate evidence in humans or animals).
Aspartame will reportedly be classified into group 2b. It shares this category with aloe vera leaves, electromagnetic radiation, the heart drug digoxin and engine exhaust fumes. For all of these hazards, there is some limited data that suggests they might cause cancer – but nothing convincing.
But does Aspartame cause Cancer?
These categories can be confusing because they refer only to the strength of the evidence that something can cause cancer, not the degree of risk. Group 1 for example includes smoking, alcohol, processed meat, plutonium and sunlight. There’s convincing evidence each one can cause cancer. But the actual risks are very different and depend on amount and exposure. For instance, plutonium and smoking are best avoided, but there’s no reason to avoid processed meat or alcohol completely. While the IARC assesses the hazard, it’s JECFA’s job to assess the risk and make a recommendation about the acceptable daily intake.
Their assessment will also be published on July 14, but there hasn’t been an indication in the media reports what it will say. It’s possible the acceptable daily intake will remain at 40mg per kilogram of body weight, or it may be reduced. Without having access to the data, is impossible to predict.
The Evidence so Far
The last review of aspartame’s safety was conducted by EFSA in 2013. This review didn’t find any new evidence that aspartame causes cancer and confirmed previous reviews by other regulators.
One compound that was of particular interest was methanol, which is formed in the gut when aspartame is broken down and converted into formaldehyde by the human body. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen (group 1). However, the amount that can form after the consumption of aspartame is much lower than what the body produces naturally.
In the interim there has been some data from a French study, which asked participants to provide information about their diet and followed them up for several years afterwards. This research suggested high consumption of aspartame increases cancer link. However, the results are difficult to interpret as obesity is an independent risk factor for cancer and people who are higher in weight, often use sweeteners. It’s also difficult to estimate aspartame intake accurately from diet data alone.
It’s likely that the upcoming assessments will include this data and therefore provide a better estimate of aspartame’s risk. Until then, there is no reason for concern. Aspartame has been scrutinised for a long time and the classification of “possibly carcinogenic” suggests it’s unlikely there will be any major change in assessment or implications for consumers. DM
Story by Gunter Kuhnle •
Update on Aspartame Causing Cancer
The World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that aspartame, a sugar substitute in sweetening many processed foods was ‘possibly carcinogenic’. The reason for this new classification is that current evidence in support of aspartame’s implicitness in causing cancer is insufficient. This report simply acknowledges the cancer-causing potential of aspartame but refuses to commit to a definitive verdict.
The report’s wordings shy away from commitment and attempts at neutrality between industry and consumer health. This article considers the general premise for the report and the effect it could have on public health.
Processed food debate
The problem with processed foods is the very high density of calories they contain. Most carbonated beverages are not as filling as solid food, so the volume required for satiety eventually leads to overconsumption.
The excess calories build up and causes weight issues and insulin resistance and leads to the development of several medical conditions. This problem is not limited to sugar-sweetened beverages alone. Processed foods generally are calorie dense and pose a risk, irrespective of the sweetening agent used to prepare them.
A Sugar Replacement?
This misconception was also the premise for the economic preference for aspartame. There Is a significant population that will only drink carbonated drinks if they are ‘healthy’; if they contained less sugar. On the other hand, aspartame was accepted as a safer alternative to saccharin. Due to its incredible sweetness, about 200 times more than sugar, it helps companies fetch great profits. Aspartame, like other sweeteners, is at the centre of a multibillion-dollar industry that takes advantage of inconsistent health advisory information.
Clearly, an outright declaration against the substance by the WHO could have had far-reaching consequences. It would not take more than a brutally honest report for the entire industry to start crumbling.
However, the lives of millions of people that continue to consume several kinds of processed edibles that contain aspartame is important. These people are exposed to the development of several kinds of cancers. They also live in developing countries where economic realities are forcing companies to scale up production of these cheaper alternatives.
The WHO has recommended that daily intakes should be maintained at the current range and called on independent researchers to elucidate other areas of contention. But it is a scary thought, that when eventually these grey areas of research have been cleared, much irretrievable damage would have been done.