A bombshell report may potentially blow the diet food and drink industry. Aspartame, a prevalent artificial sweetener found in an array of diet and low-calorie food and drink products such as Diet Coke and Extra chewing gum, could be declared ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans,’ according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The implications of this reclassification could send shockwaves throughout the global food manufacturing industry, disrupting brands that have heavily relied on artificial sweeteners in their low-sugar or sugar-free alternatives. While some call into question the classification system and argue that ‘the dose makes the poison,’ others cite decades of high-quality evidence contradicting the IARC’s review.
This article will explore the potential carcinogenicity of aspartame, its implications for the global food and drink industry, and the ongoing debates surrounding its safety and impact on public health.
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Artificial Sweetener Aspartame Under Scrutiny, Review on Its Possible Carcinogenic Risks
The report reveals startling findings about the artificial sweetener aspartame, widely used in diet sodas, chewing gums, and low-calorie foods, among other things. A declaration from the World Health Organization (WHO) is anticipated, labelling aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” based on a major safety review involving 1,300 studies. This prediction has sent shockwaves through the global food manufacturing market, with products like Diet Coke, Dr Pepper, Fanta, and Extra chewing gum identified as containing aspartame.
According to a WHO insider, the reclassification follows a comprehensive safety assessment of the artificial sugar replacement, which has been used since the 1980s. Other products that contain this substance include Muller Light yoghurts, certain toothpaste brands, dessert mixes, and sugar-free cough drops. Yet this news has not come without controversy. As Professor Oliver Jones, an expert in chemistry at RMIT University in Melbourne, argues, “The dose makes the poison.” Similarly, Cancer Research UK explicitly states, “artificial sweeteners such as aspartame don’t cause cancer”, and industry bodies have labelled the IARC review as consisting of “widely discredited research.”
Nevertheless, the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization’s Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) is also reviewing aspartame’s use and will announce its findings on the same day as the IARC. The JECFA, since 1981, has maintained that aspartame is safe to consume within accepted daily limits. For example, a 60kg (132 lbs) adult would need to drink between 12 and 36 cans of diet soda daily to be at risk, depending on the beverage’s aspartame quantity.
Industry and regulators are concerned that conducting both reviews could be confusing. Nozomi Tomita of Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare expressed this concern in a letter to WHO’s deputy director general, Zsuzsanna Jakab, urging coordinated efforts. The International Sweeteners Association (ISA) also weighed in. Secretary General Frances Hunt-Wood said, “IARC is not a food safety body,” and emphasised that no conclusions should be drawn until both reports are published. Furthermore, the ISA expressed concerns that the speculation over the IARC review might mislead consumers.
Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist, criticised the IARC’s rating system as ‘dumb’, saying people are more interested in whether a substance likely causes cancer rather than if it’s just possible. Dr John Sievenpiper, an expert in medicine at the University of Toronto, also highlighted the safety of aspartame and its positive impact on reducing obesity, cardiovascular disease, and death.
Others view the IARC’s potential ruling as a vindication of previous warnings. Professor Erik Millstone at the University of Sussex argues that reliable evidence of aspartame’s potential harm has been available since 2005. His concerns about the industry’s efforts to discredit the IARC are echoed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), who say they will examine the JECFA report before deciding on further action.
The IARC’s potential ruling follows an observational study in France among 100,000 adults last year, which showed that people who consumed larger amounts of artificial sweeteners — including aspartame — had a slightly higher risk of cancer. This French study, in turn, followed an Italian study from the early 2000s, which reported that some cancers in mice and rats were linked to aspartame.
Other Foods and Beverages to Avoid
In addition to aspartame, it’s crucial to be aware of other artificial sweeteners and additives, such as sucralose and high-fructose corn syrup, which may also have adverse health effects when consumed in large amounts. Moreover, processed foods, fast foods, and sugary beverages should be consumed in moderation, as they often contain unhealthy levels of sodium, fats, and sugars that can contribute to various health issues.
- Dr Pepper and Fanta
These popular soft drinks contain aspartame, similar to Diet Coke. Consumers often choose these beverages for a sweet, refreshing drink that won’t affect their sugar intake. However, with aspartame’s potential health risks under examination, their safety is also in question.
- Muller Light Yogurts
Low-fat yoghurts like Muller Light are often sweetened with aspartame to reduce their sugar content. Yoghurt lovers who opt for these ‘diet’ versions might unknowingly increase their aspartame consumption.
- Sugar-free Jell-O
Many sugar-free desserts, such as Jell-O, contain aspartame as a sweetening substitute. While these products might be attractive to those trying to reduce their sugar intake, they can contribute to an individual’s exposure to aspartame.
- Certain Breakfast Cereals
Some low-sugar or diet breakfast cereals use aspartame or other artificial sweeteners to maintain sweetness without the added calories. Consumers eating these cereals could be unknowingly ingesting aspartame.
- Sugar-free Candies
Many candies labelled as ‘sugar-free’ use aspartame to replace sugar. While they may help with calorie reduction, they might lead to increased aspartame intake.
- Diet Iced Tea
Like diet sodas, many diet iced teas use aspartame or similar artificial sweeteners to reduce sugar content. These drinks, enjoyed by many as a healthier alternative to sugary beverages, could potentially expose consumers to aspartame.
- Protein Bars and Meal Replacement Shakes
Many low-sugar protein bars and meal replacement shakes utilise aspartame or artificial sweeteners to add sweetness without calories. While they can be convenient and filling, they could also contribute to your aspartame intake, especially if consumed regularly.
- Sugar-free Chewing Gum and Mints
Most sugar-free gums and mints, like Extra chewing gum, use aspartame to provide sweetness without sugar. If you frequently chew gum or use breath mints, you may ingest more aspartame than you realise.
Apart from aspartame, another substance, acrylamide, found in coffee and toast, has also been discussed for its potential harm. WHO-backed warnings have previously flagged red meat, working overnight, and excessive use of mobile phones as potential carcinogens. These substances or activities are commonly encountered, creating a need for public awareness and balanced risk assessments.
Therefore, the current discussion around aspartame isn’t an isolated case but part of an ongoing discourse on food safety and human health. As we delve deeper into artificial sweeteners, we must watch these discussions to ensure our dietary choices align with the latest scientific findings.
Healthier Food and Beverage Alternatives
Many people rely on quick and convenient food and beverage options, which often include artificial sweeteners, such as those found in diet sodas and chewing gums. While these products may seem like a healthier alternative to their sugar-laden counterparts, it’s essential to consider the potential long-term effects of these additives on our health.
Here are some healthier food and beverage alternatives to help you make more informed choices and reduce your consumption of artificial sweeteners like those in Diet Coke and chewing gums.
- Stevia-Sweetened Drinks
Stevia is a natural sweetener derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It offers a sweetness of up to 300 times that of sugar without calories, making it a popular choice for diet beverages and sugar-free products.
- Honey-Infused Foods
Honey, natural sweetener bees produce, is a healthier choice due to its antioxidant properties and nutrients. It can be used in foods like yoghurt, cereals, and baked goods, giving them a sweet taste without artificial sweeteners.
- Maple Syrup
Maple syrup, a natural sweetener extracted from the sap of maple trees, can replace artificial sweeteners in many baked goods. It not only sweetens but also adds a unique flavour profile.
Plain water is the best hydration choice, free from artificial sweeteners, sugars, and calories. For those who find water too plain, try infusing it with fresh fruits, cucumbers, or herbs to give it a natural, subtle flavour.
- Herbal Teas
Herbal teas, such as chamomile, peppermint, and hibiscus, offer many flavours without adding sweeteners. They can be enjoyed hot or cold and come with various health benefits, including relaxation and improved digestion.
- Natural Fruit Juices
Natural fruit juices, when consumed in moderation, can be a healthier choice than artificially sweetened drinks. Opt for juices that are 100% fruit and have no added sugars.
- Unsweetened Yoghurt with Fruit
Unsweetened yoghurt paired with fresh fruit provides a satisfying and healthy option for those who avoid artificial sweeteners in sugar-free products. The natural sugars in fruit can help satisfy your sweet tooth, while yoghurt offers protein and probiotics.
While these alternatives can offer more natural and potentially healthier options, it’s crucial to remember that any sweetener, even natural ones, should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet.
Reassessing Our Choices in Light of Artificial Sweetener Concerns
The recent report concerning the potential carcinogenicity of aspartame, an artificial sweetener ubiquitously found in diet drinks and sugar-free products, poses potential shockwaves throughout the global food and beverage industry. This latest classification could affect numerous low-calorie food and drink staples that many have relied on for decades, from Diet Coke to sugar-free gums, and highlights the ongoing debate about the safety of artificial sweeteners.
While the controversy around aspartame continues, it underscores the importance of staying informed about the food and beverages we consume. The potential risks associated with artificial sweeteners stress the need for consumers to prioritise natural, whole foods and beverages. It might mean opting for drinks sweetened with natural sugars like honey or stevia or selecting whole foods over processed ones. Ultimately, being aware and making informed, healthy choices can help us toward overall wellness.