Sweetener aspartame safe or risky? WHO and FDA clash over carcinogenicity

Sweetener aspartame safe or risky? WHO and FDA clash over carcinogenicity



Representational image of soft drink which has artificial sweetener as its one of ingredients. Unsplash
Representational image of soft drink which has artificial sweetener as its one of ingredients. Unsplash

Controversy continues to swirl around the artificial sweetener aspartame as experts debate its potential carcinogenicity. The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” citing limited evidence of a link to cancer. 

However, the US Food and Drug Administration disagrees, asserting that aspartame is safe when consumed within approved limits.

“The safety of our products is our highest priority,” said an industry trade group, American Beverage, praising the Expert Committee on Food Additives’ decision to not make changes to the daily acceptable limits of aspartame. This highlights the ongoing clash of opinions regarding the safety of aspartame’s use.

Aspartame is a commonly used artificial sweetener found in numerous sugar-free products such as diet sodas, chewing gums, and low-calorie desserts. It was first approved by the FDA in 1974, and its safety has been a subject of debate ever since.

Disagreements over aspartame’s safety arise from the interpretation of the available evidence. The WHO’s classification is based on limited evidence suggesting a possible link between aspartame consumption and cancer. In contrast, the FDA contends that comprehensive studies have found no safety concerns within approved usage levels.

“While the WHO’s classification raises concerns, it’s important to remember that their recommendation is for moderation, not total avoidance,” advises Dr Francesco Branca from the WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety. This underlines the importance of balance when consuming products containing aspartame.

Aspartame, composed of two amino acids (phenylalanine and aspartic acid), is a low-calorie alternative to sugar. It is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar, allowing for lower amounts to be used to achieve the desired level of sweetness while keeping calorie intake in check.

Some studies suggest a potential association between aspartame consumption and health risks such as liver and lung cancer. However, critics argue that these studies may have used unrealistically high doses of aspartame not typically encountered in regular human consumption.

In 2013, after a thorough review, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that aspartame and its related products are safe for the general population as long as the acceptable daily intake is not exceeded. The WHO’s recent classification adds another layer of complexity to the ongoing debate.

While the exact impact of aspartame on human health remains uncertain, it is crucial to consider the available evidence, practice moderation, and make informed choices about personal consumption. As experts continue to study the potential effects of aspartame, further research is needed to provide a comprehensive understanding of its risks and benefits.

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