When craving a refreshing soda but wanting to cut down on calories and sugar, reaching for a Diet Coke may seem like the perfect solution. However, recent news from the World Health Organization (WHO) has cast a shadow of doubt on one of its key ingredients: Aspartame. This artificial sweetener is now under scrutiny as the WHO's cancer research unit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), is expected to label it as a potential carcinogen. This development has ignited a fierce debate between industry stakeholders and regulatory bodies.
What is carcinogen
A carcinogen is a substance or agent that can cause cancer in living organisms. It can be a chemical compound, radiation, or certain biological agents. Carcinogens can initiate or promote the development of cancer cells by damaging the DNA and disrupting cellular processes. They may lead to genetic mutations or the uncontrolled growth and division of cells, ultimately resulting in the formation of tumours. The classification of a substance as a carcinogen is typically based on scientific evidence from studies and evaluations conducted by organisations such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Identifying and understanding carcinogens is crucial for assessing and managing risks to human health and implementing preventive measures.
What is Aspartame and the WHO's Findings
Aspartame is a white, odourless powder used as a low-calorie artificial sweetener. It is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar and is classified as an E number, which denotes food additives.
The IARC, responsible for assessing potential hazards based on published evidence, will determine whether aspartame poses a potential cancer risk. It's important to note that their evaluation does not consider the safe consumption levels for individuals. These guidelines are established by the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization's Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and national regulators.
Previous IARC rulings on different substances have caused consumer concerns, triggered lawsuits, and prompted manufacturers to reformulate their products. Critics argue that the IARC's assessments could be more explicit for the public. Simultaneously, JECFA is reviewing the use of aspartame this year, with its findings set to be announced on the same day as the IARC's decision later this month or in August 2023.
The Controversy Surrounding Aspartame
Since 1981, JECFA has consistently deemed aspartame safe for consumption within accepted daily limits. For example, an adult weighing 60 kg (132 pounds) would have to drink between 12 and 36 cans of diet soda, depending on the amount of aspartame in the beverage, every day to be at risk. National regulators have widely shared this viewpoint in the United States and Europe.
However, the pending IARC decision has triggered a strong reaction from industry representatives. The International Sweeteners Association, which includes major companies like Mars Wrigley, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo, has criticised the IARC review.
They claim it is based on "widely discredited research" and raises serious concerns about potentially misleading consumers. Even in May 2023, WHO published guidelines advising consumers not to use non-sugar sweeteners for weight control.
The guidelines caused a furore in the food industry, which argues they can be helpful for consumers wanting to reduce the amount of sugar in their diet.
Conflicting Studies and Consumer Concerns
Studies on the safety of aspartame have yielded conflicting results over the years. A French study published in March of last year suggested a potential increased risk of cancer, particularly breast and obesity-related cancers, among individuals who consume aspartame.
However, previous large-scale studies on humans found no such association, and UK experts have not found a causal link. Another study published in December last year found a correlation between aspartame consumption and anxiety in mice.
Products Containing Aspartame
Aspartame is widely used worldwide and can be found in more than 6,000 products. Some of the most common products that include aspartame as a sweetening agent are Diet soft drinks: Popular brands like Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Pepsi Max, Sprite Zero, and Fanta Zero use aspartame to provide sweetness without the added calories of sugar. Sugar-free chewing gum, candies, and mints: Brands such as Extra, Orbit, Trident, Hollywood, Mentos, Freedent, and Airwaves offer sugar-free alternatives that utilize aspartame.
Low-calorie yoghurts and desserts: Yoplait and Müller Light are some yoghurt brands that produce low-calorie varieties sweetened with aspartame. Certain sugar-free or reduced-sugar desserts like mousse, puddings, and gelatine may also contain aspartame.
The Safety Debate: Is Aspartame Dangerous?
Over the past four decades, aspartame has undergone extensive study and testing, including investigations into its potential links to cancer. More than 100 studies have found no evidence of harm caused by aspartame. The scientific consensus supports the safety of aspartame for all groups of people, except individuals with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare inherited disorder.
The warning ‘Not for phenylketonurics’ is included on foods containing aspartame due to the presence of phenylalanine, one of the two amino acids in aspartame. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of aspartame in food in 1981 and has repeatedly reviewed its safety.
It is also certified as safe by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), national regulators in various countries, and the WHO's JECFA. Approximately 100 countries, including India, permit the use of aspartame.
The pending IARC ruling has raised concerns within the nutrition world, with many expecting new concerns about the sweetener to be conveyed. The outcome of the IARC and JECFA evaluations will be announced soon.
The controversy surrounding aspartame highlights the ongoing challenges in understanding food additives' potential risks and benefits. As millions of people worldwide have been consuming these beverages for years, it becomes essential to address accountability in such situations.
If aspartame is found to cause harm, who should be held responsible? The responsibility falls on various stakeholders, including regulatory bodies, food manufacturers, and consumers. Regulatory bodies play a crucial role in evaluating the safety of food additives and setting appropriate guidelines.
Food manufacturers are responsible for conducting thorough research, ensuring product safety, and providing accurate information to consumers. At the same time, consumers are also responsible for being aware of the potential risks associated with the products they consume and making informed choices. Holding all parties accountable is vital to maintaining public trust, ensuring food safety, and protecting the health of individuals worldwide.
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