WHO: Occasional Artificial Sweetener Intake Poses Low Risk of Cancer

Leading global health agencies report consumers who limit their intake of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners are at little risk of getting cancer.

“The occasional level of exposure, which is far from the acceptable daily intake, is safe and is not producing appreciable health risk,” said Francesco Branca, World Health Organization director, department of nutrition and food safety.

“The problem is for high consumers and the problem is for situations where consumption is shifting towards high consumers,” he said. “But I think our results do not indicate that occasional consumption should pose a risk to most consumers.”

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, has been widely used in a variety of foods and beverages, including diet soda, chewing gum, ice cream, and breakfast cereal, since the 1980s.

Recent media reports that the WHO’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, was likely to declare aspartame carcinogenic for humans created an uproar among stalwart dieters hooked on these low-fat products.

Two scientific bodies conducted independent but complementary reviews to assess the potential carcinogenic hazard and other health risks associated with aspartame consumption.

Mary Schubauer-Berigan, head of the IARC monographs program, says her agency’s task was to identify the possible hazards, not the risks associated with aspartame.

“It is very important to note that this was a hazard identification and not a risk assessment,” she said. “A hazard identification aims to identify the specific properties of the agent and their potential to cause harm, that is the potential of an agent to cause cancer,” she said, noting it does not reflect the risk of developing cancer at a given exposure level. “So, the working group classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Schubauer-Berigan said the IARC Group 2C classification was made based on limited evidence from three studies for a type of liver cancer in humans, adding that there also was limited evidence for cancer in experimental animals.

“Despite consistent positive findings in the three studies, the working group concluded that chance, bias, and confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence. And, thus, they concluded that the evidence was limited,” she said.

The WHO’s Branca said the JECFA, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, reviewed the risks associated with aspartame and concluded that “there was no convincing evidence from experimental or human data that aspartame has adverse effects after ingestion within the previously established daily intake of 0-40 milligrams per kilo body weight.”

What this means, he said, is that a person who weighs 70 kilograms can consume 2,800 milligrams of aspartame a day. “If we look at, for example, the contents of aspartame in common sodas, which is between 200 and 300 milligrams per day, that means consuming between nine and 14 cans of these sodas. You can see this is quite a large amount.”

Since the long-range impact of artificial sweeteners is not known, Branca advises people to limit the consumption of sweetened products altogether.

“It is particularly important for young children who will be exposed early enough to a taste adjustment, and they will then basically be on a track to continually consume sweetened products.”

He said a child who weighs 20 kilograms could consume two to three cans of soda laced with artificial sweeteners, which would be within the prescribed acceptable daily intake. However, he warned many children are likely to consume much more.

“You may have families that instead of having water at the table, have a big can of sparkling drinks with sweeteners. That is not good practice,” he said. “So, children may be at a higher risk also because starting the consumption early in life, not only puts you on a track of being accustomed to that taste and levels, but also because we have a really long-term exposure, and I am not sure whether our studies have been able to tell us about the lifelong exposure.”

While companies could reconsider their products, Branca said WHO is not advising food and drink companies to consider replacing aspartame with alternative sweeteners.

“It is not about really looking at new alternatives for the moment. It is about changing the formulation of products and changing the choice of ingredients so that you can have still tasty products without the need to use sweeteners,” he said.

In the meantime, he suggests people consider consuming products that do not contain either free sugars or artificial sweeteners, such as water and fresh fruit that is naturally sweet.

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