Artificial sweeteners have found a prominent place in our kitchens, becoming a staple for those seeking to reduce or eliminate sugar due to diabetes and other health factors. However, recent reports about aspartame, a commonly used sweetener, have set off alarm bells. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is predicted to designate aspartame as “potentially cancer-inducing to humans” in July 2023.
But before fear takes hold, it’s important to understand what aspartame is, its common uses, and the potential impact of the IARC’s imminent ruling. Discovered in 1965 and approved by the US FDA as a food additive in 1975, aspartame has become a go-to sweetening agent due to its intense sweetness -nearly 200 times that of ordinary table sugar – and the fact that it contributes no calories to our diet. Unlike other artificial sweeteners, it also leaves no bitter aftertaste.
These features have made aspartame a favorite among health-conscious consumers and a mainstay in the food and beverage industry. However, there’s another side to this sugar substitute. A French observational study conducted in 2022 on 100,000 adults indicated a slight increase in cancer risk for those who consumed large amounts of artificial sweeteners, including aspartame.
The use of aspartame is widespread, featuring in an array of low-calorie products from fizzy drinks like Diet Coke, sugar-free confectionery, desserts, and low-fat yogurts to ice creams and even cough syrups. It also serves as a flavor enhancer in baked and canned goods, candies, puddings, and powdered mixes of coffee, tea, and juice.
The IARC’s forthcoming ruling, formulated on the basis of reviewing 1,300 published studies on aspartame and its potential risks, holds significant implications. The report includes recommendations from the WHO’s expert committee on food additives (JECFA) as well as national regulators.
The designation of aspartame as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ doesn’t definitively indicate it causes cancer but suggests a possible association with the disease, based on either sufficient evidence of cancer-causing potential in animals or strong indications of carcinogenic-like characteristics, albeit without definitive evidence of causing cancer in humans.
The potential classification of aspartame as a possible carcinogen aims to stimulate more research on food and consumer safety, say sources close to IARC. In response to these concerns, while some food and beverage companies continue to advocate their use of aspartame, others have adjusted their recipes to incorporate alternatives. A few companies in the US have even eliminated aspartame from their products entirely.