The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) much anticipated ruling on artificial sweetener ‘aspartame’ has concluded the product is “possibly carcinogenic” but also that it is unlikely to cause adverse effects if consumed below recommended limits.
If consumers find that confusing, Dr Francesco Branca, director of the WHO’s department of nutrition and food safety suggests “drink water instead, and limit the consumption of sweetened products altogether”.
The WHO’s finding consists of two main parts: hazard and risk.
The hazard identification assesses whether the product can cause harm.
The risk assessment determines whether adverse effects are likely if the product is consumed below recommended limits.
The hazard identification of aspartame as a group 2B carcinogen – possibly carcinogenic to humans – comes from a working group of 25 international experts from the International Agency for Research on Cancer at the WHO (IARC/WHO).
The IARC/WHO bases its conclusions from limited evidence of three epidemiological studies in the US and Europe for a type of liver cancer. Those studies examine the consumption of artificially sweetened beverages – a proxy for aspartame, as it was the main sweetener at the time of the studies – along with limited evidence in animal and other studies.
Separately the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives – an international expert scientific committee – assessed the risks of aspartame, finding no convincing evidence for adverse effects within the acceptable daily intake limits of 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.
For an average adult of 70 kilograms, that limit would translate to 2,800 milligrams of aspartame, or around 9 to 14 cans of sweetened soda, the WHO representatives say.
A summary of the IARC/WHO evaluation is to be published online in Lancet Oncology today and summary of the risk assessment will be available on the WHO website around the same time.
The WHO’s research builds on the organisation’s earlier review of the evidence regarding the use of artificial sweeteners for weight control.
The resulting guideline recommends consumers limit their intake of both sugar and artificial sweeteners, and that “non-sugar sweeteners not be used as a means of achieving weight control of reducing the risk of noncommunicable diseases”.
Branca says the WHO is advising moderation and is not asking companies to withdraw products, nor is it recommending consumers stop drinking or eating products containing the sweetener altogether.
Dr Daisy Coyle, accredited dietician and research fellow at the George Institute for Global Health in Sydney says aspartame has been around for a long time and is one of the most common artificial sweeteners used in ultra-processed foods sold to Australian consumers.
Research by the Institute, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tracks changes in the Australian food supply between 2015 and 2019, looking at the availability of artificial sweeteners and their relationship with added sugars.
According to the study, around 4% of all products on Australian supermarket shelves contain artificial sweeteners. Along with an increase in food and drink products containing artificial sweeteners over the four years, the study found really big shifts in the types of sweeteners used.
Coyle, a co-author of the study, says aspartame “is used in a lot of low calorie diet products and diet drinks. You also see it in things like chewing gums, no sugar confectionery products, even some low sugar snacks and sauces.”
She says the WHO findings highlight the need for more research into the health impacts of artificial sweeteners and their long term risks.
“It is great that the World Health Organisation and the international agency on research and cancer are starting to synthesise as much evidence as they can to bring some guidelines out for consumers. And raise awareness that these artificial sweeteners are probably not as healthy as what some people thought.”
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In the lead up to the WHO findings, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) published a statement on aspartame.
The statement says experts from FSANZ assisted in the WHO risk assessment process.
CEO Dr Sandra Cuthbert says, “FSANZ will await the outcomes of the full review process to assess if further action is required.”
“If unacceptable risks to the public are identified, FSANZ will work with domestic food regulation system partners and international agencies to take appropriate action,” she says.