The sweet and sour controversy over safety of aspartame set to reignite
The artificial sweetener aspartame, which is widely used in the food industry, is set to be declared a possible carcinogen this month by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Reuters reported this week.
The World Health Organization's cancer research arm is expected to list the sweetener as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" for the first time, which means there is some evidence that it may cause cancer in humans, though the evidence at present is far from conclusive.
The sweetener is used in globally popular products, such as Diet Coke, sugar-free Trident chewing gum, sugar-free Jell-O jellies, Crystal Light diet drink mixes and Log Cabin sugar- free syrup. Pepsi removed aspartame from its diet sodas in 2015, resumed its usage a year later and then removed it again in 2020.
Food giants such as Coca-Cola have so far remained silent on the news, but some Chinese producers, including Genki Forest and Nayuki, have clarified that their sugar-free products don't contain aspartame.
Discovered in 1965 by American chemist James Schlatter, aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar yet extremely low-calorie. Its popularity grew out of the weight-loss trend.
According to a report by Allied Market Research, the global aspartame market was valued at US$375.5 million in 2021 and is projected to reach US$561.7 million by 2031.
The debate about whether aspartame is safe has been going on for years.
Although it has been deemed safe for human consumption by over 100 countries since 1981, some scientists believed that it may cause some types of cancer.
The concern stems from the results of studies in rats, published by a group of Italian researchers, which suggest aspartame might increase the risk of some blood-related cancers, including leukemias and lymphomas. However, other studies have cast doubt on the conclusions.
The anti-aspartame stance by the IARC is likely to renew the controversy. The International Sweeteners Association has already expressed serious concerns.
"The IARC is not a food safety body," said Frances Hunt-Wood, secretary-general of the association. "The World Health Organization's Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives is currently conducting a comprehensive food safety review of aspartame, and no conclusions can be drawn until both reports are published."
He added, "Aspartame is one of the most thoroughly researched ingredients in history, with over 90 food-safety agencies across the globe declaring it is safe, including the European Food Safety Authority, which conducted the most comprehensive safety evaluation of aspartame to date."
So is Diet Coke still an option?
People with a rare, inherited disorder called phenylketonuria have long been advised to avoid foods that contain aspartame. The disorder causes an amino acid called phenylalanine to build up to dangerous levels in the body, and aspartame is converted into that acid in the body.
WHO has suggested that artificial sweeteners not be used as a means of losing weight or reducing the risk of some diseases. Its studies show that such sweeteners might actually heighten the body's desire to consume more sugar.