Aspartame - Possibly Cancer-causing?

Tuesday, July 4th, 2023

By Audrey Yow

Unnamed sources have reportedly leaked to Reuters that IARC could list aspartame as a possibly cancer-causing (carcinogenic) ingredient.


The IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) is the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO). News of this leak has dealt another blow to manufacturers who use aspartame in the food industry. Just last month, the WHO issued a health risk warning against consuming artificial sweeteners, citing the increased risk of chronic diseases as one of the undesirable side effects of consuming non-sugar sweeteners. 


The Risks of Consuming Aspartame

Sold under the names NutraSweet and Equal, aspartame is a common ingredient in products labelled as ‘diet’, ‘sugar-free’, ‘low-calorie’ or ‘zero-sugar’. A white, odourless powder, aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar. As it can deliver sweetness with just a small amount and contains negligible calories, it is an excellent substitute for food manufacturers looking for sugar alternatives. But there have been doubts raised about this artificial sweetener, some of which are listed below:


1. It can be carcinogenic (cancer-causing). When aspartame is being processed in our body, part of it is transformed into methanol, which is also the case when we consume foods such as fruits and certain vegetables. Additionally, when aspartame is heated, free methonol is created. Free methanol breaks down into formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and neurotoxin, in our body. When present in large quantities, methanol can be both toxic and cancerous.


2. It is dangerous to those who are diagnosed with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare genetic condition. PKU sufferers are unable to properly process phenylalanine, leading to a build-up which can have negative side effects such as brain damage and seizures. Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid found aspartame. It is also found in meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products.


3. There are various claims, though not widely backed by authorised health organisations, that it can have negative health effects that include the following: Allergies, depression, weight gain, cravings for sweet food, increased appetite, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and kidney disease.


Note that aspartame is one of the most studied artificial sweeteners. To date, there has been no conclusive research that links aspartame to any serious health conditions or risks. But news of WHO’s recent stance towards artificial sweeteners have raised concerns, and could cause a spike in demand for natural sweeteners.


The Pros and Cons of Using Natural Sweeteners

Some examples of natural sweeteners are honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, stevia and monk fruit (luo han guo). In recent years, natural sweeteners have gained favour because they are less processed than regular table sugar. For this reason, they may retain some of the nutrients present in the original source material. For example, honey has antimicrobial properties, and maple syrup contains minerals like manganese and zinc.

Some natural sweeteners have a lower glycemic index than table sugar, which works for those who need to manage their blood sugar levels.


In terms of adding a dash of creativity and more dimension to the taste experience, natural sugar alternatives can impart unique flavours to food products. Molasses or date sugar can give rich, caramalised flavours to a beverage or a dish.


But here’s a note of caution: Natural sweeteners are still a source of calories. The above benefits do not give an individual a free pass to consume any amount of natural sweeteners. People with diabetes or those aiming to manage their blood sugar levels should still use natural sweeteners in moderation and in consultation with a healthcare professional.


Natural sweeteners also tend to cost more than regular sugar, which is derived from cane or beet. Cane and beet can be grown almost anywhere from Asia to the United States, and years of production have led to efficient output. The higher cost of natural sweeteners will drive up manufacturing costs for food producers looking to replace regular sugar.


The International Council of Beverages Associations (ICBA) Responds

Recent developments regarding artificial sweeteners have caused an uproar in the food industry, especially among manufacturers who rely on aspartame as a key ingredient for their products. The International Council of Beverages Associations (ICBA) responded:

“While it appears IARC is now prepared to concede that aspartame presents no more of a hazard to consumers than using aloe vera, public health authorities should be deeply concerned that this leaked opinion contradicts decades of high-quality scientific evidence and could needlessly mislead consumers into consuming more sugar rather than choosing safe no- and low-sugar options — all on the basis of low-quality studies.


“Even IARC agrees it is not the appropriate authority to undertake risk assessment based on actual consumption and that it ‘does not make health recommendations.’ We remain confident in the safety of aspartame given the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence and positive safety determinations by food safety authorities in more than 90 countries around the world.


“We, therefore, welcome the broader, more comprehensive food safety review underway by the WHO and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).”

– Executive Director Kate Loatman


Contrary to the leaked IARC opinion, an April 2022 systematic review published by IARC’s parent body the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded there was “no significant association” between higher consumption of low- and no-calorie sweeteners (measured through beverage consumption) and cancer mortality, nor any type of cancer. IARC had committed to conduct its review in “close collaboration” with the more comprehensive WHO and FAO joint review and to release results of both reviews simultaneously on July 14.


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