The artificial sweetener aspartame, widely used in diet drinks and low-sugar foods, may possibly cause cancer, the World Health Organization agency announced Thursday.
However, the second WHO committee stuck to its assessment of safe levels of aspartame consumption. By some calculations using the panel’s standard, a person who weighs 150 pounds may be at risk of cancer but still drink about a dozen cans of diet soda a day.
The announcement by the WHO agency of a cancer risk linked to aspartame marks the first time that a major international body has publicly considered the effects of the nearly ubiquitous artificial sweetener. Aspartame has been a controversial ingredient for decades.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, said it based its conclusion that aspartame is a probable carcinogen based on limited evidence from three observational studies in humans, the agency said. Consumption has been linked to an increase in liver cancer cases – at levels below a dozen cans per day. It cautioned that the results could potentially be skewed towards the profile of people who drink diet drinks in excess and called for further study.
Still, people who consume high amounts of aspartame should consider switching to water or other sugar-free beverages, said Dr. Francesco Branca, director of the WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety.
But, he added: “Our results do not indicate that occasional consumption should pose a risk to most people.”
Rising global rates of obesity and diabetes, as well as changes in consumer preferences, have led to a growing trend towards sugar-free and low-sugar food and beverages. Aspartame, one of six sweeteners approved by US regulators, is found in thousands of products, from packets of Equal to sugar-free gum, diet soda, tea, energy drinks and even yogurt. It is also used to sweeten various pharmaceutical products.
The US Food and Drug Administration, which approved aspartame decades ago, on Thursday issued an unusual critique of the global agency’s findings and reiterated its longstanding position that the sweetener is safe. In a statement, the FDA said it “disagrees with the IARC’s conclusion that these studies support the classification of aspartame as a probable carcinogen for humans.”
The FDA also stated that “the fact that aspartame is labeled as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ by the WHO does not mean that aspartame is actually associated with cancer.” The FDA declined to make any of its experts available for interview to discuss the agency’s specific concerns.
But its attack against the international organization is sure to spark further debate in Europe — where the sweetener is still considered safe — and reopen review in the United States. And announcements from dueling global agencies are likely to create confusion among consumers.
WHO. has sometimes gone toe-to-toe with other officials on potential cancer risks such as glyphosate, and later moved toward establishing that it was dangerous to humans Health That ingredient in the weed killer, Roundup, was named by the international body as having links to cancer, leading to a lawsuit against the herbicide’s makers.
Worldwide, the powerful beverage industry has fought a long and hard battle against any regulatory or scientific findings linking artificial sweetener use to an increased risk of cancer or other health problems. Aspartame is the latest battleground for multinational companies to push back against new studies or possible links to health risks.
“Aspartame is safe,” Kevin Keane, interim president of the American Beverage Association, said in a statement. They cited the declarations of the dueling WHO, the other panel, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, which conducted a concurrent review and left its recommended daily intake amounts unchanged. The WHO’s summary shows that it considers the evidence for cancer in humans to be “not credible”.
“After a rigorous review, the World Health Organization found aspartame to be safe and ‘there is no sufficient reason to change the acceptable daily intakes already established,'” Mr Keane said. “This strong finding reinforces the position of the FDA and food safety agencies of more than 90 countries.”
Coca-Cola referred questions to the American Beverage Association and PepsiCo did not respond to requests for comment.
The safety of sugar replacements has come under heavy scrutiny, including the decades-old science controversy over the use of saccharin in diet drink tabs. Once linked to bladder cancer in rats, Congress mandated further study of saccharin. Since then, according to FDA, 30 The studies showed that rodent results do not apply to humans; american official removed Saccharin from the list of probable carcinogens. More recently, other sweeteners have come under scrutiny for being linked to potential health risks.
At the center of the controversy over aspartame are rodent studies from 2005-2010 by Italy-based researchers that showed an association with cancer. The FDA has rejected the long-debated studies because “tampered with,
Dr. William Dahut, chief scientific officer of the American Cancer Society, who led one of the major studies the WHO relied on, said the findings should be considered alongside the WHO report earlier this year , which indicated that artificial sweeteners do not help with weight loss. or protection against other chronic conditions.
There is now little evidence that consuming Diet Coke daily will increase cancer risk, she said, adding that “more research is needed.” Overall, he said, the science is more certain that cancer risk can be reduced by avoiding tobacco, alcohol, processed meats and excess body weight.
The IARC said it could not rule out the possibility that the studies linking aspartame to liver cancer were the result of chance or other factors linked to drinking diet soda.
The WHO’s cancer agency has four categories: carcinogenic, possibly carcinogenic, possibly carcinogenic and no classification. Those levels reflect the strength of the science, rather than how likely the substance is to cause cancer.
The other WHO Group on Food Additives recommends that a person’s daily intake of aspartame per kilogram of weight be less than 40 milligrams – which is slightly less than the suggested US level of 50 milligrams.
The FDA said it estimates that a person weighing 132 pounds would need to eat 75 packets of the aspartame sweetener. reach threshold exposure to potential risk.
To review aspartame, IARC calls on 25 oncologist in Lyon, France to review existing studies from 12 countries. It concluded that there was limited cancer evidence in humans based on three studies linking artificially sweetened beverages to an increase in hepatocellular carcinoma, which is the most common type of liver cancer.
One Study led by WHO officials in 2016, who looked at nearly 500,000 people in Europe who were followed for about 11 years. The study tracked participants’ consumption of juice and soft drinks and their association with liver and bile duct cancer. It examined artificially sweetened soft drink drinkers and found that the risk of liver cancer increased by 6 percent for each additional diet soft drink consumed per week.
A american studies Researchers from Harvard, Boston University and the National Cancer Institute examined consumption of sweetened beverages as reported by people in questionnaires and cancer case registries published last year. Researchers found an increased risk of liver cancer in people with diabetes who said they consumed two or more artificially sweetened sodas a day. That study found no increase in liver cancer among diet soda drinkers who did not have diabetes.
A third study, led by the American Cancer Society, examined data on the use of sugar and artificially sweetened beverages and cancer death. It found a 44 percent increase in liver cancer among men who had never smoked and drank two or more artificially sweetened beverages a day. Even adjusting for higher body mass — which is a cancer risk factor in itself — the risk increased by 22 percent in men, the study’s Supplementary Data show.
The American Beverage Association, which represents Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, has been vocal in saying that the WHO’s food additives panel — not cancer experts — should be the leading authority evaluating aspartame.
In recent weeks, the beverage industry trade group has funded new alliance It is led by former President Donald J. Alex Azar, a Trump appointee, and Donna Shalala, a former President Bill Clinton appointee, did. Mr. Azar and Ms. Shalala were both former secretaries of the Department of Health and Human Services. in one opinion piece Earlier this month in Newsweek, the two embraced the FDA’s position on the safety of aspartame and called the agency “the world’s gold standard for independent regulatory bodies.”
The trade group previously opposed another review in California of aspartame’s possible links to cancer. In 2016, a state committee discussed Aspartame is under review, but has not moved forward.
California officials said this week that the state may review the latest WHO decision.
In addition to aspartame, the WHO’s cancer agency has considered other potential carcinogens, ranging from seemingly benign ginkgo biloba extract and aloe vera leaf extract to gasoline exhaust and perfluorooctanoic acid, the most common of the industrial chemicals. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have recently been the subject of billion-dollar settlements over contamination of drinking water.
The IARC also waded into one of the central controversies of aspartame research, considering aspartame a possible carcinogen. It concluded that there was some evidence of cancer in laboratory animals based on studies conducted by the Ramzini Institute in Italy, citing the finding of a cluster of increased tumors in aspartame studies since the mid-2000s. However, based on concerns over group methods and interpretation, the findings were considered limited.
For its part, the Ramzini Institute said in 2021 Its work on aspartame was validated and its earlier findings were “brutally attacked by the chemical manufacturing and processed food industries and their allies in regulatory agencies.”
WHO’s Dr. Branca said during a news conference on Wednesday that 10 million people die of cancer every year, in response to questions about the need for the IARC review. “So this is a social concern that our organization needs to respond to,” he said.
He said the results show a clear need for further high-quality research.
Dr. Branca said, “We have kind of raised a flag here, indicating that we need to be more clear in the situation.” “It’s not something we can rule out at this point in time.”
Julie Creswell contributed reporting to this article.