In a potential blow to the food industry and consumers alike, aspartame, one of the world’s most widely used artificial sweeteners, may soon be classified as a possible carcinogen.
According to an exclusive report by Reuters, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the World Health Organisation (WHO), is expected to make this classification in its upcoming decision, News About Nigeria gathered.
The IARC, known for assessing the hazards of substances based on published evidence, will reportedly list aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” for the first time. This development has raised concerns and pitted the sweetener against both the food industry and regulators.
The impending ruling, set to be announced in July, has sent shockwaves throughout the food industry and regulatory bodies. However, it is important to note that the IARC classification does not consider safe consumption levels, which are determined separately by the WHO’s expert committee on food additives, known as the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).
The parallel evaluation processes of aspartame’s safety have sparked worries about potential public confusion. Since 1981, JECFA has conducted assessments endorsing the safe consumption of aspartame within accepted daily limits, a stance supported by national regulators in the United States and Europe.
The IARC’s previous decisions on various substances have had significant impacts, triggering consumer concerns, legal actions, and adjustments to recipes. However, the agency’s assessments have also faced criticism for causing unnecessary alarm or confusion.
The IARC classifies substances into four categories based on the strength of the evidence rather than the level of risk they pose: carcinogenic, probably carcinogenic, possibly carcinogenic, and not classifiable. Aspartame is expected to fall into the “possibly carcinogenic” category, signifying limited evidence of its potential to cause cancer in humans, sufficient evidence in animals, or strong evidence regarding its characteristics.
To add context, the IARC’s classifications include substances ranging from processed meat to asbestos in the “carcinogenic” category, while activities like consuming red meat and exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields from mobile phone use are labeled as “probable” and “possibly cancer-causing,” respectively.
Not surprisingly, the food industry has expressed concerns about the IARC review. Frances Hunt-Wood, secretary general of the International Sweeteners Association, which counts Mars Wrigley, a Coca-Cola unit, and Cargill among its members, criticized the IARC’s review as scientifically incomplete and heavily reliant on discredited research.
The International Council of Beverages Associations’ executive director, Kate Loatman, urged public health authorities to be wary of the “leaked opinion,” warning that it might mislead consumers into opting for sugar instead of safe no- and low-sugar alternatives.
Aspartame has been the subject of extensive research for years. Last year, a large observational study conducted in France, involving 100,000 adults, reported a slight increase in cancer risk among those who consumed higher quantities of artificial sweeteners, including aspartame.
The IARC’s potential classification of aspartame as a possible carcinogen is expected to trigger further investigations and assist stakeholders in making more informed decisions. However, it is likely to reignite discussions about the IARC’s role and the overall safety of artificial sweeteners.
The food industry argues that these substitutes can help consumers reduce their sugar intake and is frustrated by recent WHO recommendations against their use for weight control.
As the controversy surrounding aspartame unfolds, the impact on consumer choices and industry practices remains to be seen. With health concerns at stake, the debate over the safety of artificial sweeteners is likely to intensify, prompting a closer examination of their potential impact on our well-being.