GLOBAL – The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has officially classified the popular artificial sweetener aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

The classification is based on limited evidence linking aspartame to hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer, in humans, as well as some evidence of cancer in experimental animals.

While IARC’s determination has sparked concerns, not all regulatory bodies are in agreement.

Aspartame, a widely-used sugar substitute found in various diet beverages and low-calorie products, has been a subject of debate for years.

This latest classification by IARC has raised questions about its safety and potential impact on human health.

IARC classifications are based on scientific evidence and indicate the potential of an agent to cause cancer in humans, but they do not directly reflect the actual risk of developing cancer at specific exposure levels.

IARC’s conclusion stems from its independent review of scientific literature on aspartame’s health effects, marking the first time the agency has evaluated this sweetener.

Alongside IARC, the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) also conducted its own review.

Surprisingly, JECFA reaffirmed the previously established acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 40 mg/kg of body weight for aspartame, asserting that it remains safe for human consumption.

The ADI essentially means that a person weighing 70 kg can safely consume aspartame within the limit of 2,800 mg daily, assuming no additional intake from other food sources. This reaffirmation by JECFA aims to reassure consumers that aspartame, when used as approved, does not pose a significant health risk.

FDA’s dissent and industry’s backlash

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), known for its stringent food safety evaluations, expressed its dissent to IARC’s classification. The FDA cited significant shortcomings in the studies used by IARC to support its findings, highlighting the agency’s confidence in the safety of aspartame under approved conditions.

Industry groups, including the American Beverage Association and the Calorie Control Council, also voiced their disagreement with IARC’s determination.

These groups emphasize the extensive research on aspartame over four decades and its regulatory approval by more than 90 food safety authorities worldwide.

They argue that IARC’s assessment does not account for actual dietary intake, potentially causing unnecessary fear and confusion among consumers seeking sugar alternatives for weight management or health reasons.

Both IARC and JECFA acknowledge the need for further research to fully understand the potential carcinogenicity of aspartame.

They advocate for higher-quality studies with longer follow-up periods and repeated dietary questionnaires in existing cohorts.

JECFA specifically calls for randomized controlled trials exploring mechanistic pathways relevant to insulin regulation, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes in relation to carcinogenicity.

A balanced perspective

As the debate continues, experts urge consumers to consider a balanced perspective. While IARC’s classification indicates a possibility of risk, it does not establish a direct link between aspartame and cancer at the current levels of exposure.

While regulatory bodies and industry groups disagree on the matter, consumers may find comfort in the FDA’s review, which provides an alternative viewpoint based on its rigorous scientific evaluations.

The quest for safer sugar substitutes will undoubtedly persist as the world awaits further research. The global impact of this sweetener debate reminds us of the ongoing efforts to strike a harmonious balance between consumer choices, scientific understanding, and public health.

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