Reports suggest that the World Health Organization could declare aspartame a “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” meaning it increases the risk of developing cancer.
What is Aspartame?
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener first developed in the 1960s that is about 200 times sweeter than sugar.
This means that it takes less grams per gram than sugar to achieve the same sweet result, making products containing it lower in calories.
Also, unlike sugar, it does not raise blood sugar and thus can be used as an alternative source of sweets for diabetics.
Chemically it consists of three substances aspartic acid (40 percent), phenylalanine (50 percent) and methanol (10 percent).
What is it found in?
In a wide variety of products that market themselves as “diet” or “sugar-free.”
The best-known examples are the diet soft drinks from soft drink giant Coca-Cola, Diet Coke and Coke Zero, but also sugar-free gums such as Extras.
Other examples are low-fat yogurts.
Is there aspartame in Coke Zero and Pepsi Max too?
Yes. Both products list aspartame in their ingredients list.
Other soda brands such as some Fanta flavors, Lucozade, and Dr Pepper also contain the artificial sweetener.
What are the dangers?
Aspartame has been linked to numerous common medical problems, including headaches, dizziness, and upset stomach.
However, blind trials, where participants don’t know if the product they’re consuming contains the sweetener, have been unable to replicate this.
But there have been wider health concerns for years, including that they cause cancer, alter the gut biome, cause depression and, paradoxically, even contribute to obesity by increasing people’s appetites.
However, health and nutrition regulators have repeatedly declared them safe for use after a “rigorous safety assessment.”
There is one exception, and that is for people with phenylketonuria, a rare hereditary condition.
People with phenylketonuria cannot process phenylalanine, an amino acid that is one of the building blocks of aspartame.
When people with phenylketonuria consume phenylalanine, it can build up in their blood and eventually damage their vital organs.
For this reason, aspartame must be listed as an ingredient on products containing it.
Only about one in 10,000 people has the condition.
What does the ruling entail?
If confirmed, the WHO body, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), would link aspartame consumption to cancer.
However, there are varying degrees of the strength of the cancer risk it could get.
According to reports, it could be listed as a “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” a status shard by such substances as aloe vera extract, the metal lead, and various dyes.
By comparison, the IARC has declared red meat a “probably carcinogenic to humans,” one notch above the status that aspartame could receive.
But even if it is found to be “possibly carcinogenic” to humans, the individual risk can vary wildly.
The IARC makes its classification based on evidence linking a substance to cancer, not the actual risk itself.
This would be determined by a separate body, the Joint WHO and the Expert Committee on Food Additives of the Food and Agriculture Organization, which would advise on individual consumption levels in conjunction with national health authorities.
In theory, this could lead the NHS to recommend, for example, a healthy limit for the consumption of products containing aspartame, similar to those for red and processed meat.
More broadly, an IARC ruling on aspartame’s cancer risk could lead to consumer backlash, with customers avoiding products containing aspartame due to cancer fears.
Similar boycotts have taken place based on other IARC rulings.
This may lead companies to change the formulation of their products.
Could this mean products like Diet Coke are getting a cancer warning?
Unlikely. Such rules are left to the individual countries.
But no similar warnings have been posted for red or processed meat in the UK, despite stronger links to cancer being found, according to previous IARC rulings.