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World Health Organization officially classifies artificial sweetener “aspartame” as a carcinogen

World Health Organization (WHO) through the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) officially classified the artificial sweetener aspartame as a carcinogen on Thursday (13 Jul).

The WHO’s release regarding the potential cancer-causing risks of aspartame was also endorsed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).

According to the IARC, aspartame poses a carcinogenic risk to humans, while JECFA reiterated that the acceptable daily intake is 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.

JECFA concluded that the evaluated data did not provide sufficient reasons to change the acceptable daily intake of aspartame, which remains at 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. Therefore, they reaffirmed that it is safe for individuals to consume within these limits on a daily basis.

For instance, an adult weighing 70 kilograms would need to consume more than 9-14 cans of diet soda containing 200-300 milligrams of aspartame per day to exceed the acceptable daily intake.

These quantities are assumed without considering any other intake from other food sources containing aspartame.

Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at WHO, revealed that cancer has become one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Scientific knowledge continues to evolve in assessing possible cancer triggers, including the issue of artificial sweeteners like aspartame.

He stated that the latest assessment indicates that safety regarding the dosage of aspartame is not the primary concern.

Potential harmful effects have been identified, although further research is still needed.

Dr Branca was quoted as saying, “Potential effects have been described, which need to be investigated by more and better research,” in an official statement on the WHO website on Friday (June 14).

Both IARC and JECFA conducted independent reviews and complemented each other in assessing the carcinogenic risks associated with aspartame consumption.

After reviewing available scientific literature, both evaluations by IARC and JECFA noted limitations in the evidence available for cancer and other health effects.

The declaration issued by WHO marks the first time a leading international body has considered the effects of artificial sweeteners like aspartame, which have been present almost everywhere.

Aspartame has been a subject of debate for decades.

“Our results do not indicate that occasional consumption poses a risk for most people,” said Francesco Branca, as quoted in The New York Times.

He added, “However, individuals who consume aspartame in high amounts should consider switching to water or other non-sweetened beverages,” further supplementing his statement.

Both IARC and WHO identified a potential link between aspartame and a type of liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma after reviewing three large-scale studies conducted in the United States and Europe.

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, was discovered in 1965. It consists of two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine.

Compared to regular sugar, aspartame is approximately 200 times sweeter, meaning only a small amount is needed. In short, one packet of aspartame (1 gram), which contains 4 calories, is equivalent to 2 teaspoons of regular sugar (8 grams) with 32 calories.

According to Livestrong, aspartame is found in a variety of sugar-free food products, including diet soda, chewing gum, gelatin, ice cream, cereal, and sugar-free cocoa mixes. Artificial sweeteners are also used to add a sweet touch to medications, such as cough syrup, and chewable vitamins.
However, many baked goods do not contain aspartame. The structure of aspartame’s amino acids is unstable when heated and loses some of its sweet taste during the baking process.

Dr Maxi Rein Rondonuwu, Director of Disease Prevention and Control (P2P) at the Indonesian Ministry of Health, stated that the certainty regarding the connection between cancer and non-sugar sweeteners like aspartame is still very low.

This means that there are not many studies showing a correlation between the two. “It still requires evidence from further research,” Dr. Maxi told detikcom on Friday (July 14).

Nevertheless, he advised the public to replace free sugars in their food with naturally sweet sources, which can be obtained from fruits, making it safer for health.

Additionally, food and beverages should be minimally processed, meaning they should not contain excessive sugar, oil, or other substances that can potentially trigger diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

Citing WHO guidelines, Dr. Maxi stated that long-term prospective observational studies with an average follow-up of 13 years have shown no association between the use of non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) and the incidence or death from cancer.

However, he also mentioned, “Long-term systematic reviews on adults or children suggest potential adverse effects of long-term use of non-sugar artificial sweeteners, such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults.”

He concluded by saying, “The use of NSS, especially saccharin, is associated with an increased risk of bladder cancer as assessed in case-control studies, but the certainty of evidence from these studies is still very low and requires further research.”

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