Aspartame guidance unchanged despite cancer concern

Although aspartame has been classified as "possibly" carcinogenic, no changes have been made to the recommended aspartame intake.

The World Health Organization has two groups of experts reviewing thousands of scientific studies. The label "possibly carcinogenic" often causes dread and confusion, but it simply indicates that the evidence is inconclusive.

The majority of people consume less aspartame than the safe maximum limits, but the WHO recommends that heavy consumers reduce their intake. Aspartame is found in diet and sugar-free foods because it is 200 times sweeter than sugar for a small number of calories.

Diet Coke, Coke Zero and Pepsi Max are well-known brands that contain the sweetener. However, aspartame is present in approximately 6,000 products, including toothpaste, chewing tobacco, yogurt, and cough drops. Since its introduction in the 1980s, the chemical's safety has been a source of contention despite its ubiquitous use.

Dr. Francesco Branca, director of the department of nutrition and food safety at the World Health Organization (WHO), stated that the reviews had "raised the red flag" that aspartame may not be great for your health, but that you shouldn't worry about an occasional diet drink or other product containing the sweetener, adding, the problem is with heavy consumers. WHO's cancer specialists at the International Agency for Research on Cancer were the first to evaluate the evidence.

Aspartame has been placed in the "possibly carcinogenic" category along with aloe vera and lead. This decision is primarily based on three studies that suggest a link to a form of liver cancer. However, "possibly" only refers to the weight of scientific evidence. If the evidence was substantial, aspartame would be categorized higher.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer's Dr. Mary Schubauer-Berigan stated that the evidence was not of sufficient quality or convincingness and that this is really more of a call to the research community to study the sweetener further. The classifications of cancer frequently result in misleading headlines. Both alcohol and plutonium have been proven to cause cancer, but one is significantly more hazardous than the other.

The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization is responsible for determining safe doses. It analyzed the cancer risk as well as other issues such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, but found "no sufficient reason" to change the advice it's had since 1981. Therefore, the daily safe limits remain at 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.

These are the upper safety limits, not targets. However, because the recommendations are based on body weight, it is simpler for children to approach the limit.

How might aspartame cause cancer (if it does) is one of the most important unanswered research questions. According to WHO reports, aspartame is swiftly broken down in the digestive tract into phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol. However, these are also produced by the digestion of a wide diversity of non-carcinogenic foods. The researchers concluded that aspartame does not directly cause cancer-causing DNA mutations in humans. Increasing inflammation levels in the body is one possibility.

There are some individuals who cannot consume aspartame safely. People with the inherited disease phenylketonuria or PKU are born unable to metabolize the phenylalanine that is generated during the breakdown of aspartame.