Aspartame, a widely-used artificial sweetener found in products such as Diet Coke, may be labeled a potential carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer research unit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), next month, stirring debate between health authorities and industry giants. Aspartame, 200 times sweeter than sugar, is used in numerous low-calorie food and beverage products.
The IARC’s decision comes after consultations with external experts, evaluating all published evidence to determine potential health risks. However, it does not factor in safe consumption limits, which is the responsibility of a separate WHO body, the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization’s Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). IARC’s evaluations in the past have stirred public concern and led to legal actions and product reformulations, eliciting criticism for potentially misleading the public.
Simultaneously, JECFA is also reviewing aspartame, with findings expected to be announced on July 14th, the same day IARC is to disclose its decision. JECFA has upheld the safety of aspartame within prescribed daily limits since 1981, an opinion backed by regulators in the US and Europe.
The simultaneous review process by both committees has raised concerns about potential confusion. The International Sweeteners Association (ISA), representing major corporations such as Mars Wrigley, Coca-Cola, and Pepsico, argues that IARC’s decision is based on “discredited research”.
Past research on aspartame has produced mixed results. Some studies have linked it to an increased risk of cancer, obesity, high blood sugar levels, leukemia, and damage to gut bacteria. However, extensive human studies found no such associations, and UK health experts maintain that no causal link has been established.
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