Aspartame, the sweetener found in many foods and fizzy drinks, is to be officially classified as “probably carcinogenic” to humans, it has been reported.
This label often causes confusion because it does not indicate whether the potential risk is large or small.
Other “possibly carcinogenic” substances included aloe vera, diesel and pickled Asian vegetables.
The BBC understands that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) will issue a statement on 14 July.
What has aspartame in it?
Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar, so its taste contains no calories.
You’ll find it on the ingredient lists of many sugar-free or sugar-free foods, including diet drinks, gum, and some yogurts. Well-known drinks containing aspartame include Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Pepsi Max and 7 Up Free, but the sweetener is found in about 6,000 food products.
The sweetener has been used for decades and is approved by food safety agencies, but there has been controversy surrounding the ingredient.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization, has been reviewing about 1,300 studies on aspartame and cancer.
Reuters says it has spoken to sources familiar with the matter and that aspartame will be listed as “possibly carcinogenic” – but what exactly does that classification mean?
The BBC understands that the International Agency for Research on Cancer and an independent expert committee on food additives will issue an official statement, alongside an article in the Lancet Oncology medical journal on 14 July.
IARC uses four possible classifications:
- Group 1 – Carcinogenic to humans
- Group 2A – Probably carcinogenic to humans
- Group 2B – Possibly carcinogenic to humans
- Group 3- Not classifiable
However, this is where it gets confusing.
“The IARC classification won’t tell us anything about the actual level of risk of aspartame because that’s not what the IARC classification means,” said Kevin McConway, professor of statistics at the Open University.
The IARC tells us how strong the evidence is, not how dangerous a substance is to your health.
The “likely” category is used when there is “limited” data from human or animal experiments. It includes diesel fuel, perineal talc, nickel, aloe vera, Asian pickled vegetables and many chemicals.
Prof McConway added: “I would stress that although the evidence that these things may cause cancer is not very strong, otherwise they would be classed as Group 1 or Group 2A.”
The IARC classification has caused confusion in the past and has been criticized for creating unnecessary alarm. When processed red meat was classified as a carcinogen, it led to reports equating it with smoking.
But giving 100 people an extra 1.7 ounces (50 grams) of bacon a day for the rest of their lives – on top of the bacon they’ve already eaten – runs the risk of one case of bowel cancer.
However, we do not yet have corresponding data on aspartame, and the WHO and FAO Expert Committee on Food Additives are due to report in July.
Since 1981, its position has been that 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day is safe. That’s between 12 and 36 cans of sugar-free drinks a day (depending on the exact ingredients) for an adult weighing 60 kg (9 ½ stone).
Kate Lotman, executive director of the International Council of Beverage Associations, said public health authorities should be “deeply concerned” by the “leaked opinion” and warned that it “could mislead consumers into consuming more sugar rather than choosing safe sugar-free and low-sugar options”.
Rick Mumford, the FSA’s deputy chief scientific adviser, said the agency would “look closely” at the reports, but “our view is that the safety of this sweetener has been assessed by multiple scientific committees and is considered safe at current permitted levels of use”.
A study in the early 2000s linked it to cancer in experiments on mice and rats, but the findings were criticized and other animal studies have not found a cancer risk.
Last year, a study of 105,000 people compared those who consumed no sweeteners to those who consumed a lot of sweeteners. High levels of sweeteners – including aspartame – have been linked to a higher risk of cancer, but there are many differences in health and lifestyle between the two groups.
Frances Hunter-Wood, from the International Sweeteners Association, said: “Aspartame is one of the most thoroughly studied ingredients in history, with more than 90 food safety bodies worldwide declaring it safe.
Some people cannot safely consume aspartame. These people suffer from a genetic disorder called phenylketonuria, or PKU.
People with PKU cannot metabolize one of the components of aspartame.
If conclusive scientific evidence emerges that there is a clear link between aspartame and cancer, it could have some impact on the aspartame market. Here are some possible effects:
- Lower market demand: Public concerns about the safety of aspartame may lead to concerns about products that use aspartame, reducing demand for such products. Consumers may prefer alternative sweeteners or natural sweeteners.
- Marketing and brand image damage: Aspartame suppliers and food and beverage producers may be at risk of market trust and brand image damage. If aspartame is perceived by consumers to be risky, companies may need to change their marketing strategies or look for alternative sweeteners to protect their brand image and market share.
- Regulatory changes: If there is conclusive scientific evidence linking aspartame to cancer, regulators may establish more stringent rules and restrictions on the use of aspartame to protect public health. This may include reducing permitted use, labeling warnings, or banning the use of aspartame in certain products.
There is no conclusive scientific evidence that aspartame causes cancer. However, if future studies find potential health risks associated with aspartame or other sweeteners, this could have a similar impact on the zero-calorie sweetener market. Consumers should make informed choices and decisions based on authoritative scientific research and advice from health organizations.
If aspartame is identified as a carcinogen, it could have a negative impact on the functional powder beverage market. As consumers raise concerns about the safety of functional powder beverages containing aspartame, leading to reduced demand, companies may need to reformulate their products, choose other sweeteners or offer more natural sweetener options to meet consumer needs for safety and health. In addition, brand image and market trust can be damaged, and companies need to take steps to enhance product safety messages and market transparency.
If aspartame is identified as a carcinogen, it could have a negative impact on the sugar-free gum market. Aspartame is a common artificial sweetener used in sugar-free chewing gum, and consumer concerns about its safety may lead to concerns about the use of sugar-free chewing gum containing aspartame, thereby reducing the demand for such products. Consumers may switch to gum with other sweeteners or natural sweeteners. Suppliers and brands may need to reevaluate product formulations and offer safer and healthier sweetener options to meet consumer demand and restore market trust.
If aspartame is identified as a carcinogen, it could have a negative impact on sugar-free cookies and the cookie market. Aspartame is commonly used as an alternative sweetener in sugar-free products, and consumer concerns about its safety could lead to a decline in demand for such products. Consumers may be more inclined to choose cookies that use natural sweeteners or other alternatives. Suppliers and brands may need to reevaluate product formulations, choose safer sweeteners, and provide clear safety information to restore consumer trust and adapt to changes in market demand.