In a move that could have huge ramifications for the food and drink industry, the World Health Organisation’s cancer research agency is reportedly going to declare one of the world’s most popular artificial sweeteners, aspartame, a possible carcinogen.
A carcinogen is defined as a substance that has the potential to cause cancer. Last week Reuters reported that aspartame, which is used in products from “Coca-Cola diet sodas, Mars’ Extra chewing gum and some Snapple drinks” will be listed in July as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The IARC is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer research arm.
The ruling was finalised earlier in June after a meeting of the group’s external experts.
According to the Australian Beverages Council: “Aspartame was discovered in 1965 and was approved for use in Australia in 1986. It is one of the most widely used non- sugar sweeteners in food products as its taste is very similar to that of sucrose (table sugar)”.
Reuters says the ruling does not take into account the amount of aspartame that a person can safely consume. The advice comes from a separate WHO expert committee on food additives, known as JECFA (the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization’s Expert Committee on Food Additives), alongside determinations from national regulators.
In the past, similar IARC rulings have raised concerns among consumers which have led to lawsuits and forced manufacturers to change their recipes. In response some have criticised the IARC saying their assessments can be confusing to the public.
JECFA, the WHO committee which reviews additives, is also reviewing aspartame use use and is due to announce its findings on the same day that the IARC makes public its decision – on July 14.
Since 1981, the JECFA has said that the sweetener is safe to consume within reasonable limits. An adult weighing 60 kg (132 pounds) would have to drink between 12-36 cans of diet soda a day to be at risk. YThis is the view that has been shared by most regulators globally.
A spokesperson for the IARC told Reuters that both the IARC and JECFA committees’ findings were confidential until July, but added they were “complementary”, with IARC’s conclusion representing “the first fundamental step to understand carcinogenicity”. The additives committee “conducts risk assessment, which determines the probability of a specific type of harm (e.g. cancer) to occur under certain conditions and levels of exposure.”
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