What to know and how much is safe


Is aspartame safe?

The cancer research group of the World Health Organization on Thursday saying that it was classifying the common artificial sweetener found in Diet Coke and other sugar-free foods and beverages as a possible carcinogen, but the agency’s food safety group said the evidence was not convincing and the compound could still safely consumed in fairly high amounts

The US Food and Drug Administration said it disagreed with aspartame being categorized as a possible carcinogen.

“Aspartame is one of the most studied food additives in the human food supply. FDA scientists have no safety concerns when aspartame is used under the approved conditions,» the FDA said in a statement.

Aspartame is sold under the names Equal, Nutrasweet, and Sugar Twin. It is found in many diet sodas, as well as some low-calorie, sugar-free gum and desserts.

Diet Coke cans at a plant in West Valley City, Utah, on April 19, 2019.File by George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

During a press conference on the Wednesday before the announcement, WHO officials stressed that they were not advising companies to recall products or telling people to avoid aspartame altogether.

“We are just advising a bit of moderation,” said Dr. Francesco Branca, director of the WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety.

The seemingly contradictory statements by the WHO that aspartame can possibly cause cancer but it is safe to consume—came from two separate groups within the organization.

A group, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), focuses on the identification of cancer-causing agents. the other, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, examines the safety of food additives and whether they pose a risk to consumers. The groups carried out the review after an advisory panel marked the complex as «high priority» for review in 2019.

The IARC said in a statement Thursday that it was classifying aspartame as possibly carcinogenic, meaning there is some evidence that it can cause cancer in humans, but the evidence is far from conclusive, according to Mary Schubauer-Berigan, acting director. of the IARC Monographs Program. (Exposure to a carcinogen does not mean that a person will get cancer.)

Given the limited evidence, the Expert Committee on Food Additives concluded that it is not currently making any changes to the recommended limit of aspartame that a person can safely consume.

That limit, known as the acceptable daily intake — is quite high: 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day, or 40 milligrams for every 2.2 pounds a person weighs.

That means that an adult weighing 154 pounds, or 70 kilograms, would need to consume more than nine to 14 cans of diet soda per day to exceed the acceptable daily intake, assuming you don’t get aspartame from other foods or beverages. A 12-ounce can of diet soda typically contains 200 to 300 milligrams of aspartame.

The FDA limit is even higher, to 50 milligrams per kilogram per day, or 50 milligrams per 2.2 pounds of body weight.

The Coca-Cola Company did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, American Beverage, the industry trade group, said the safety of its products is its top priority and that «IARC is not a food safety agency.»

American Beverage commended the decision of the Expert Committee on Food Additives not to make changes to the acceptable daily limits for aspartame.

“This strong conclusion reinforces the position of the FDA and food safety agencies in more than 90 countries,” American Beverage CEO Kevin Keane said in a statement.

The Calorie Control Council, which represents the low- and reduced-calorie food and beverage industry, similarly praised the Expert Committee on Food Additives and criticized the IARC ruling as «incorrect» and «potentially harmful.»

Does aspartame cause cancer?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer tests whether certain compounds, organisms, or agents are carcinogenic.

He classifies his findings into four groups: Substances in Group 1 «cause cancer.» These include tobacco smoke and UV rays from the sun. Group 2a substances are «probable carcinogens» and include things like red meat and steroids. Group 2b, which aspartame now falls into, are substances that are «possible carcinogens» and include pickled vegetables, engine exhaust and aloe vera. Group 3 substances are «unclassifiable», meaning there is no credible evidence to date that they cause cancer. Group 3 includes coffee, for example.

The IACR decision on aspartame was based on three human studies that found a link between consumption of artificially sweetened beverages and hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common type of liver cancer. There was also some evidence of an increased incidence of tumors in mice and rats. who were given aspartame in their food, but the group noted that the studies were flawed. A summary of the evaluation was published on Thursday. in the lancetbut the full report will not be available for another six months, the WHO said.

Presenting the findings of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, Branca said a panel of 13 experts from 15 countries did not find the evidence linking aspartame to cancer convincing.

«The panel considered that the studies that were obtaining positive results were limited in their design and in the quality of the interpretation of the data,» Branca said during the press conference.

FDA scientists previously reviewed the IARC-included studies and «identified significant deficiencies,» the agency said.

The American Cancer Society said the science behind whether aspartame causes cancer is still evolving.

«We recommend that people use today’s IARC report as a time to reflect on their aspartame use, but also as an opportunity to review their overall dietary intake, including processed meat and alcohol, known carcinogens associated with increased cancer risk,» said the scientific director of ACS. said officer Dr. William Dahut in a statement. A scientist from the organization participated in the IARC meeting last month to assess the health effects of aspartame.

It is not clear how aspartame could cause cancer.

Jotham Suez, a molecular microbiologist and immunologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said there are still no definitive answers about the possible mechanisms for how the sweetener is carcinogenic.

Suez, which was not involved in the WHO work, has published research which found that artificial sweeteners can negatively affect the gut microbiome, which could play a role in cancer risk, although more research is needed.

Do people who consume aspartame need to worry?

Despite the conclusions of the food additives committee that aspartame can be safely consumed in fairly high amounts, the WHO announcement may give some people pause, said Dr. James Farrell, a gastrointestinal oncologist at the College of of Medicine from Yale.

People may not know how to assess risk on their own, Farrell said.

Giving people clear information about their risk levels is important, given the popularity of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners.

But the potential cancer risk of aspartame, as well as guidance on daily intake, «may not be relevant» to most consumers, said George Kyriazis, an assistant professor of biological chemistry and pharmacology at the University School of Medicine. Ohio State.

According to WHO estimates, people who consume the most aspartame generally get around 30 mg/kg per day, less than the acceptable daily limit of 40 mg/kg. The average person gets 10 times less than the acceptable daily limit, the WHO said.

«There’s a big difference between a person who consumes 20 Diet Cokes a day or 15 Diet Cokes a day and the average consumer who drinks a diet soda with a meal or has a couple of packets of Equal with coffee,» he said. Kyriazis on the possible risk.

Dr. Neil Iyengar, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said some people with a genetic risk for certain cancers want to do everything they can to lower their risk.

“This is information that they would want,” he said.

The WHO’s Branca said that if people aren’t sure if they are consuming too much aspartame, there is always an alternative.

“If consumers are faced with the decision to have a cola with sweeteners or one with sugar,” he said, “I think a third option should be considered, which is to drink water instead.”

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