LONDON (Reuters) – Two groups linked to the World Health Organization declared on Friday that the sweetener aspartame is a “probable carcinogen” but remains safe for consumption at levels already agreed upon.
The rulings are the result of two separate WHO expert panels, one of which indicates whether there is any evidence that a substance poses a potential risk, and the other that assesses how much realistic risk the substance actually poses.
Aspartame is one of the world’s most popular sweeteners, used in products from Diet Coke to Mars Extra gum.
At a press conference ahead of the announcement, the WHO’s chief of nutrition, Francesco Branca, suggested that consumers consider beverage options that are neither aspartame nor sweetener.
“If consumers are faced with a decision whether to eat cola with sweeteners or to eat cola with sugar, I think a third option should be considered – which is to drink water instead,” Branca said.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), based in Lyon, France, said in its first declaration of the additive, which was made early Friday, that aspartame is a “probable carcinogen.”
This classification means that there is limited evidence that a substance can cause cancer.
It does not take into account the amount a person would need to be at risk, which is considered by a separate panel, the Joint WHO/Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), based in Geneva.
After conducting its own comprehensive review, the Joint Expert Committee (JECFA) said on Friday that it had no convincing evidence of harm from aspartame, and continued to recommend that people keep their levels of aspartame consumption below 40mg/kg per day.
The JECFA first set this level in 1981, and regulators around the world have similar guidelines for their populations.
Several scientists unrelated to the reviews said the evidence linking aspartame to cancer is weak. The food and beverage industry associations said the decisions showed aspartame is safe and a good choice for people who want to reduce sugar in their diets.
The World Health Organization said current consumption levels mean, for example, that a person weighing 60-70kg would have to drink more than 9-14 cans of soda a day to breach the limit, based on the average aspartame content in the beverage – about 10 times that. . What most people consume.
“Our results do not indicate that occasional consumption could pose a risk to most consumers,” Branca said.
Reuters first reported in June that the International Agency for Research on Cancer would place aspartame in Group 2b as a “probable carcinogen” along with aloe vera extract and traditional Asian pickled vegetables.
The IARC panel said on Friday it made its ruling based on three human studies in the United States and Europe that indicated a link between hepatocellular carcinoma, a form of liver cancer, and sweetener consumption, the first of which was published in 2016.
She said limited evidence from previous animal studies was also a factor, although the studies involved are controversial. There is also some limited evidence that aspartame has some chemical properties associated with cancer, the International Agency for Research on Cancer said.
“From our point of view, this is a call to the research community to try to clarify and understand the cancer risks that may or may not arise from aspartame consumption,” said Marie Shobur-Berigan, acting chair of the IARC Monographs Program. .
Scientists not connected to the WHO reviews said the evidence that aspartame causes cancer is weak.
“Group 2b is a very conservative classification in that almost any evidence of carcinogenicity, no matter how flawed, will place a chemical in this category or higher,” said Paul Pharaoh, MD, professor of cancer epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He said the joint panel of experts concluded there was no “convincing evidence” of harm.
“The general public should not be concerned about the cancer risks associated with chemicals that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified as Group 2B,” Pharaoh said.
Nigel Brockton, vice president of research at the American Institute for Cancer Research, said he expects research into aspartame to take the form of large observational studies that take into account any intake of aspartame.
Some doctors have expressed concern that the new classification of “probable carcinogen” may influence diet soda drinkers to switch to sugary, caloric beverages.
“The potential for weight gain and obesity is a much larger problem and risk factor than aspartame could ever be,” said Therese Bevers, MD, medical director of the Cancer Prevention Center at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
The WHO conclusion “once again confirms that aspartame is safe,” said Kate Loatman, executive director of the Washington-based International Council of Beverage Societies.
“Aspartame, like all low/no-calorie sweeteners, when used as part of a balanced diet provides consumers with the option to reduce their sugar intake, which is an important public health goal,” said Francis Hunt Wood, Secretary General of the Brussels-based international organization. Localities Association.
Additional reporting by Elisa Fili and Richa Naidoo. Editing by Carolyn Homer, Kathryn Evans, and Leslie Adler
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