SWITZERLAND —One of the most widely used artificial sweeteners in the world, aspartame, is anticipated to be classified as a potential carcinogen by a prominent global health organization next month, reports news agency Reuters citing reliable sources familiar with the matter.

This development has sparked a clash between the food industry and regulators. Aspartame is a key ingredient found in numerous products, including Coca-Cola diet sodas, Mars’ Extra chewing gum, and certain Snapple beverages.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), will reportedly list aspartame in July as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” marking the first time it has received such a designation.

The IARC’s decision, which was finalized after a recent meeting of external experts, aims to evaluate the potential hazards of a substance based on all available published evidence.

Importantly, it does not consider the safe consumption levels of a particular product for individuals. This aspect falls under the purview of the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization’s Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), a separate committee that provides advice on food additives and is responsible for setting acceptable daily limits.

However, past IARC rulings on different substances have sparked concerns among consumers, led to legal actions, and compelled manufacturers to reformulate their products and seek alternatives. This has raised criticism that the IARC’s assessments can be bewildering for the general public.

JECFA, the committee responsible for food additives, is also currently conducting a review of aspartame usage this year.

Their meeting commenced at the end of June, and their findings are scheduled to be announced on the same day as the IARC’s decision—July 14.

Since 1981, JECFA has consistently maintained that aspartame is safe for consumption within established daily limits.

For instance, according to their guidelines, an adult weighing 60 kg (132 pounds) would need to consume an excessive amount of diet soda, ranging from 12 to 36 cans daily, depending on the aspartame content, to be at risk.

This viewpoint has been widely supported by national regulators, including those in the United States and Europe.

A spokesperson for the IARC stated that the findings of both the IARC and JECFA committees are confidential until July but emphasized their complementary nature.

The IARC’s conclusion represents “the first fundamental step to understand carcinogenicity,” whereas the additives committee focuses on risk assessment, determining the probability of specific harm, such as cancer, under certain exposure conditions.

Nevertheless, industry representatives and regulators express concerns about the concurrent timing of both processes, as revealed in letters from U.S. and Japanese regulators obtained by Reuters.

The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s official, Nozomi Tomita, urged coordination between both bodies in a letter dated March 27, addressing the WHO’s deputy director-general, Zsuzsanna Jakab.

The letter also requested that the conclusions of both committees be released simultaneously, as is currently planned.

The Japanese mission in Geneva, where the WHO is headquartered, did not respond to requests for comment.

IARC’s impactful rulings

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has a history of making impactful rulings that reverberate across industries.

In 2015, the IARC deemed glyphosate, a common herbicide, as “probably carcinogenic,” a decision that sparked ongoing debates and legal battles.

Notably, Germany’s Bayer faced significant consequences in 2021 when it lost multiple appeals against court verdicts that held the company accountable for damages caused by its glyphosate-based weedkillers.

Criticism has been directed at the IARC for causing unnecessary concern over substances or situations that are challenging to avoid.

Previous classifications by the agency included categorizing night shift work and consumption of red meat as “probably cancer-causing” and labeling mobile phone usage as “possibly cancer-causing,” which parallels the classification of aspartame.

Frances Hunt-Wood, the secretary general of the International Sweeteners Association (ISA), expressed skepticism about the IARC’s review of aspartame, emphasizing that the IARC is not a food safety body and that their assessment lacks scientific comprehensiveness, relying heavily on discredited research.

Members of the ISA, including Mars Wrigley, Coca-Cola, and Cargill, raised serious concerns about the IARC’s evaluation, fearing it could mislead consumers.

Aspartame has been subjected to extensive studies over the years. In 2022, a French observational study involving 100,000 adults indicated a slightly higher cancer risk among individuals consuming larger quantities of artificial sweeteners, including aspartame.

The Ramazzini Institute in Italy conducted a study in the early 2000s linking aspartame to certain cancers in mice and rats.

However, the first study could not establish a causal relationship between aspartame and increased cancer risk, and questions have been raised about the methodology of the second study, including by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which scrutinized its findings.

Regulators worldwide have authorized the use of aspartame based on comprehensive reviews of available evidence.

Major food and beverage companies have defended the ingredient’s safety for decades. The IARC claimed to have assessed 1,300 studies during its review in June.

The delicate balance between taste preferences and health concerns presents a challenge for the industry, as demonstrated by Pepsico’s recent adjustments to its recipes.

The company removed aspartame from its sodas in 2015, reintroduced it a year later, and then removed it again in 2020.

The IARC’s classification of aspartame as a possible carcinogen aims to stimulate further research, providing agencies, consumers, and manufacturers with more substantial conclusions. However, it is likely to reignite debates about the IARC’s role and the overall safety of sweeteners.

In a separate development, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently published guidelines advising against the use of non-sugar sweeteners for weight control, triggering controversy in the food industry.

The industry argues that such sweeteners can be beneficial for consumers aiming to reduce their sugar intake.

For all the latest food safety news from Africa and the World, subscribe to our NEWSLETTER, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel.