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Aspartame in Soda Linked as Potential Cancer Cause but Still Deemed Safe

by Lucas Garcia
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Aspartame Safety

The popular sugar substitute, aspartame, found in diet soda and numerous other food products, has been labeled a “possible” cause of cancer. However, a separate expert team, reviewing the same data, affirmed the artificial sweetener’s safety in limited amounts.

These contrasting conclusions from coordinated reviews were disclosed early Friday. One originates from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an extension of the WHO, while the other derives from an expert panel assembled by the WHO and another U.N. organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The IARC, based in Lyon, France, frequently scrutinizes potential cancer threats but doesn’t assess the probability of these elements causing cancer. Their assessments range from “possibly” carcinogenic to “probably” to being direct cancer-causing agents.

Aspartame now finds itself in a category that includes over 300 potential cancer-inducing agents, with diverse examples such as aloe vera extract, Asian-style pickled vegetables, and carpentry work.

However, the guidelines regarding the sweetener’s use remain unchanged.

WHO’s nutrition director Dr. Francesco Branca clarified that they are not advising consumers to completely abandon aspartame. Instead, they encourage moderation in its consumption.

Let’s delve deeper into this announcement:

WHAT IS ASPARTAME?

Aspartame is a low-calorie artificial sweetener approximately 200 times sweeter than regular sugar. This white, odorless powder holds the title for being the most extensively used artificial sweetener worldwide.

Permitted as a food additive in Europe and the U.S., aspartame is present in numerous food and drink items like Diet Coke, desserts, and chewing gum. It’s also found in medications such as cough drops and foods designed for weight loss. Some commonly known tabletop sweeteners that contain aspartame are Equal, Sugar Twin, and NutraSweet.

The U.S. FDA approved aspartame in 1974, setting an acceptable daily intake of 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. This implies that a person weighing 132 pounds (60 kilograms) would have to consume roughly 75 aspartame packets to reach this limit.

U.N. experts reassessed aspartame’s safety in 1981 and lowered the safe daily limit to 40 milligrams per kilogram. David Spiegelhalter, an emeritus statistics professor at Cambridge University, explained that with this guideline, average individuals can safely consume up to 14 cans of diet drink daily.

WHAT DID THE TWO GROUPS SAY?

In June, the IARC gathered an expert team to appraise aspartame’s potential cancer-causing properties. Their determination that aspartame is “possibly carcinogenic” was based on human and animal studies showing “limited” evidence linking the compound to liver cancer.

Concurrently, a separate group of experts assembled by WHO and the food agency reassessed the risk, including the acceptable daily intake. They found “no convincing evidence” that aspartame is hazardous at the currently consumed levels, and consequently, they did not amend the acceptable consumption guidelines.

This development follows a recent announcement by WHO stating that non-sugar sweeteners don’t aid weight loss and might increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and early death in adults.

SHOULD I BE CONCERNED ABOUT OVERCONSUMPTION?

As long as consumption stays within the guidelines, there’s no cause for concern, states the FDA. David Klurfeld, a nutrition expert at the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington, points out that any substance, even essential nutrients like vitamin A, iron, and water, can become toxic in large amounts.

SO, WHAT’S THE ADVISABLE ACTION FOR CONSUMERS?

Dr. Francesco Branca of WHO stated that a significant amount of aspartame can be consumed without adverse effects. However, “high consumers” may want to reconsider their intake.

Dr. Peter Lurie, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, advises that the best choice for consumers, especially regarding beverages, is to opt for water or unsweetened drinks.

IMPACT ON THE FOOD AND BEVERAGE INDUSTRY?

Producers in the food and beverage industry see no cause for alarm, insisting that products containing aspartame are safe. However, the WHO advises food manufacturers to use ingredients that do not necessitate the addition of excessive sugar. Following the recent aspartame assessments, Dr. Branca expressed that using sweeteners “is probably not the way forward.”


This report is presented by the Big Big News Health and Science Department with the support of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP bears sole responsibility for all content.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Aspartame Safety

What is Aspartame?

Aspartame is a low-calorie artificial sweetener approximately 200 times sweeter than regular sugar. This white, odorless powder is the most extensively used artificial sweetener worldwide. It is permitted as a food additive in Europe and the U.S., and it is present in numerous food and drink items like Diet Coke, desserts, and chewing gum. It’s also found in medications such as cough drops and foods designed for weight loss.

Has Aspartame been listed as a possible cancer-causing agent?

Yes, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an extension of the WHO, has recently categorized aspartame as a “possible” cause of cancer. However, it’s important to note that another expert group reviewing the same data affirmed the artificial sweetener’s safety in limited amounts.

What are the recommended consumption levels for Aspartame?

The U.S. FDA set an acceptable daily intake of aspartame at 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. In simpler terms, a person weighing 132 pounds (60 kilograms) would have to consume roughly 75 aspartame packets to reach this limit. The U.N. experts later reassessed aspartame’s safety and lowered the safe daily limit to 40 milligrams per kilogram.

Are there any specific guidelines for consumers regarding Aspartame consumption?

The World Health Organization advises moderation in the consumption of Aspartame. High consumers might want to cut back on their intake, but the organization is not advising consumers to stop consuming it altogether. For beverages, the suggested choice is to opt for water or unsweetened drinks.

What is the stance of the food and beverage industry on Aspartame use?

Producers in the food and beverage industry insist that products containing aspartame are safe and there is no reason for consumers to avoid them. However, following the recent aspartame assessments, the WHO advises food manufacturers to use ingredients that do not necessitate the addition of excessive sugar. The use of sweeteners “is probably not the way forward,” according to WHO’s nutrition director Dr. Francesco Branca.

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