One of the world’s most common artificial sweeteners is set to be declared a probable carcinogen by a major global health body next month, pitting it against the food industry and regulators, according to two sources with knowledge of the process.
Aspartame, used in everything from Coca-Cola diet soda to Mars Xtra chewing gum and some Snapple beverages, will be listed as “probably carcinogenic to humans” for the first time by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in July. The cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), sources said.
The IARC’s decision, finalized earlier this month following a meeting of the group’s external experts, aims to assess whether something is a potential hazard based on all published evidence.
It does not take into account how much of a product a person can safely consume. This advice for individuals comes from a separate WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, known as JECFA (Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives), alongside the determination of national regulators.
However, similar IARC rulings in the past for various substances have raised concerns among consumers about their use, led to lawsuits, and pressured manufacturers to rework recipes and replace alternatives. . This has led to criticism that the IARC’s assessment may be misleading to the public.
JECFA, the WHO Committee on Additives, is also reviewing the use of aspartame this year. It began meeting in late June and is to announce its findings on the same day that the IARC will make its decision public – on 14 July.
Since 1981, JECFA has stated that intake of aspartame within accepted daily limits is safe. For example, an adult weighing 60 kg (132 lb) would need to drink 12 to 36 cans of diet soda every day to be at risk – depending on the amount of aspartame in the drink. Its approach is widely shared by national regulators, including those in the United States and Europe.
An IARC spokesman said that the findings of both the IARC and JECFA committees were confidential until July, but added that they were “complementary”, adding that the IARC findings represented a “first fundamental step towards understanding carcinogenicity”. The Additives Committee “performs risk assessment, which determines the likelihood of a specific type of harm (eg, cancer) occurring under certain conditions and levels of exposure.”
However, industry and regulators fear that conducting the two processes at the same time could be confusing, according to letters from US and Japanese regulators seen by Reuters.
In a letter to the deputy director of WHO on March 27, Nozomi Tomita, an official at Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, said, “We ask the two bodies to continue their efforts in the review of aspartame to avoid any confusion or concern among the public.” to coordinate efforts.” General, Zsuzsanna Jacob.
The letter also called for releasing the findings of both the bodies on the same day, as is being done now. The Japanese mission in Geneva, where the WHO is based, did not respond to a request for comment.
IARC’s decisions can have a big impact. In 2015, its committee concluded that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”. Years later, even though other bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) opposed it, companies were still feeling the effects of the decision. In 2021 Germany’s Bayer lost its third appeal against a US court ruling ordering it to pay damages to customers who blamed their cancer on the use of its glyphosate-based weedkillers.
IARC’s decisions have also faced criticism for creating unnecessary anxiety about avoiding such substances or situations. It has previously placed night working and red meat consumption in the “possibly carcinogenic” category, and mobile phone use in the same “possibly carcinogenic” category as aspartame.
“The IARC is not a food safety body and their review of aspartame is not scientifically comprehensive and based on widely discredited research,” said Francis Hunt-Wood, secretary general of the International Sweeteners Association (ISA).
The body, whose members include the Coca-Cola unit and Cargill, said it had “serious concerns that the IARC review could mislead consumers.”
Kate Lotman, executive director of the International Council of Beverages Associations, said that public health officials should be “deeply concerned” by the “leaked opinion”, and also warned that it would “unnecessarily encourage consumers to choose safer and lower-sugar alternatives instead.” can mislead you to take in more sugar than you should.” Sugar substitutes.”
Aspartame has been studied extensively over the years. Last year, an observational study among 100,000 adults in France showed that those who consumed large amounts of artificial sweeteners — including aspartame — had a slightly higher risk of cancer.
This followed a study from Italy’s Ramazzini Institute in the early 2000s, which reported that some cancers in rats and mice were linked to aspartame.
However, the first study did not prove that aspartame caused an increased cancer risk, and the methodology of the second study, including the EFSA, which assessed this, has been questioned.
Aspartame has been authorized for use globally by regulators who have reviewed all available evidence, and major food and beverage manufacturers have defended the use of the ingredient for decades. IARC said it had assessed 1,300 studies in its June review.
Recent recipe changes by soft drink giant PepsiCo demonstrate the industry’s struggle to balance taste preferences with health concerns. PepsiCo removed aspartame from soda in 2015, brought it back a year later, only to remove it again in 2020.
Sources close to IARC said the purpose of listing aspartame as a probable carcinogen is to spur more research, which will help agencies, consumers and manufacturers draw stronger conclusions.
But this is likely to reignite the debate over the role of IARC as well as the safety of sweeteners in general.
Last month, the WHO published guidelines advising consumers not to use non-sugar sweeteners for weight control. The guidelines caused an uproar in the food industry, which argues they could be helpful to consumers who want to reduce the amount of sugar in their diets.
(Reporting by Jennifer Rigby and Richa Naidu; Editing by Michelle Gershberg and Mark Potter)