Research community split over potential carcinogenicity of aspartame

21 July 2023 | Muriel Cozier

Acceptable daily intake for artificial sweetener remains unchanged.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), along with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives have reached differing conclusions on the potential carcinogenic hazard of aspartame, the artificial sweetener.

The two bodies conducted independent, but complementary reviews to assess the potential carcinogenic hazard and other health risks associated with consumption of aspartame. Aspartame has been evaluated by the WHO and the FAO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives on two previous occasions. However, it is the first time that the IARC looked into the artificial sweetener.

Following its review, the IARC classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans on the ‘basis of limited evidence for cancer in humans.’ There was also limited evidence for cancer in experimental animals and limited evidence related to the possible mechanisms for causing cancer. IARC stressed that its research was a ‘hazard identification and not a risk assessment.’

The WHO and FAO Joint Expert Committee concluded that based on the data evaluated, there was no sufficient reason to change the previously established acceptable daily intake of 40 mg/kg of body weight for aspartame. The committee therefore reaffirmed that it is safe for a person to consume aspartame within this daily limit, adding that there was ‘limited evidence’ for carcinogenicity in humans.

The Joint Expert Committee pointed out that an adult weighing 70 kg would need to consume 9-14 cans a day of a typical diet soft drink containing 200mg -300mg of aspartame to exceed the acceptable daily intake.

Dr Moez Sanaa WHO’s Head of the Standards and Scientific Advice on Food and Nutrition Unit said: ‘We need better studies with longer follow-up and repeated dietary questionnaires in existing cohorts. We need randomised controlled trials including studies of mechanistic pathways relevant to insulin regulation, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, particularly as related to carcinogenicity.’

Aspartame Hazard - Risk of Liver Cancer; United Nations World Health Organisation (YouTube)

Responding to the IARC conclusion, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that it disagreed that aspartame should be classified as a ‘possible carcinogen to humans.’ In its response the FDA said: ‘FDA scientists reviewed the scientific information included in the IARC’s review in 2021, when it was first made available, and identified significant shortcomings in the studies on which IARC relied. We note that the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives did not raise safety concerns for aspartame under current levels of use and did not change the Acceptable Daily Intake.’

Adding to the body of research, scientists at the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) are currently re-evaluating the safety of the salt of aspartame-acesulfame (E962) and neotame (E961). The salt of aspartame-acesulfame is a mixture of two sweeteners; aspartame (E951) and acesulfame K (E950). Neotame is a chemically related substance manufactured from aspartame. The research is taking into account new data that may have become available since the publication of the EFSA’s last scientific opinion on aspartame in 2013.

Aspartame has been used as an artificial sweetener since the 1980s and is sold under a number of brand names. Concerns over its safety came about during the late 2000s when researchers suggested that aspartame might increase the risk of some blood-related cancers. However, it was concluded that the studies had some limitations making their results hard to interpret.

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