Link between aspartame and cancer “not convincing”

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recent assessment of the health impacts of the non-sugar sweetener aspartame have been released.

The organisation has placed aspartame, an artificial sweetener widely used in various food and beverage products, into Group 2B which means there is limited, but not convincing, evidence for cancer in humans or convincing evidence for cancer in experimental animals, but not both.

There are four groups of substances classified based on their potential to cause cancer. The top tier, Group 1, comprises substances for which there is convincing evidence of their carcinogenicity. This includes tobacco smoking, processed meat, and alcohol.

Group 2A includes substances like red meat and high-temperature frying, which are classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.

Group 2B contains 323 substances, including aloe vera (whole leaf extract), ginkgo biloba, and lead. These substances are classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans, and aspartame falls within this category.

Group 3 is the lowest level and is not classifiable as carcinogenic as there is inadequate evidence in humans and in experimental animals.

Dr Moez Sanaa, WHO’s Head of the Standards and Scientific Advice on Food and Nutrition Unit, said the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) considered the evidence on cancer risk, in animal and human studies, and concluded an association between aspartame consumption and cancer in humans is not convincing.

“We need better studies with longer follow-up and repeated dietary questionnaires in existing cohorts. We need randomized controlled trials, including studies of mechanistic pathways relevant to insulin regulation, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, particularly as related to carcinogenicity.”

The JECFA concluded that was no reason to change the previously established daily intake of 0-40mg/kg body weight for aspartame. To reach this daily limit, a 70kg person would need to drink around 14 cans of soft drink sweetened by aspartame.

Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at WHO, said as cancer is one of the leading causes of death, science is continuously expanding to assess the possible initiating or facilitating factors of cancer in the hope of reducing the death toll.

“The assessments of aspartame have indicated that, while safety is not a major concern at the doses which are commonly used, potential effects have been described that need to be investigated by more and better studies.”

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