Report: WHO to Deem Sweetener as Possible Carcinogen

Meanwhile, the FDA, nearly 100 nations have greenlit aspartame
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 29, 2023 7:33 AM CDT
Report: WHO to Deem Aspartame a Possible Carcinogen
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/Highwaystarz-Photography)

Last month, the World Health Organization released new guidelines that cautioned people against using artificial sweeteners for weight control, citing findings that suggest long-term use ups the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other issues. Now the agency is signaling it may soon issue a new warning on one of those sweeteners: aspartame, used in the vast majority of ready-to-drink teas and carbonated soft drinks that use sweetener, per the Washington Post. Sources tell Reuters that the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer will announce on July 14 that aspartame will be declared "possibly carcinogenic to humans," a decision reached after the group's external experts convened.

A second WHO committee that deals with additives is also reviewing aspartame and is set to announce its own findings on the same day IARC's findings are released. Those findings may include guidance on how much is safe for an individual to consume. However, the fact that a second WHO panel will also be assessing aspartame has irritated those within the industry, as well as regulators in both the US and Japan. "We kindly ask both bodies to coordinate their efforts in reviewing aspartame to avoid any confusion or concerns among the public," an official from Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare wrote in a March letter.

Some plan on taking IARC's announcement with a big grain of salt. "IARC is not a food safety body and their review of aspartame is not scientifically comprehensive and is based heavily on widely discredited research," says Frances Hunt-Wood, secretary general of the International Sweeteners Association, which counts as members such companies as PepsiCo, Cargill, Mars Wrigley, and a Coca-Cola division. At least two studies over the past two decades did find a tie between aspartame and higher risk of cancer (in mice and rats in the first, humans in the second), but Reuters notes that "the first study could not prove that aspartame caused the increased cancer risk, and questions have been raised about the methodology of the second."

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Per the Post, the US Food and Drug Administration, which gave the OK to aspartame in 1981, has reviewed the sweetener's safety five times since, and nearly 100 countries have given it the OK as well. "There is a broad consensus in the scientific and regulatory community that aspartame is safe," says Kevin Keane, the interim CEO of the American Beverage Association. "The fact that food safety agencies worldwide, including the FDA, continue to find aspartame safe makes us confident in the safety of our products. And people all over the world should be, too." (More aspartame stories.)

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