What is aspartame, the additive in your diet cola, which the WHO may declare as ‘possibly carcinogenic’?

The cancer research arm of the World Health Organisation (WHO) will list the popular sugar substitute aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, the news agency Reuters reported on Thursday (June 29). The listing by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is likely next month, the Reuters report said, quoting unnamed sources.

Aspartame is one of the world’s most common artificial sweeteners and is used in a wide range of diet soft drinks, sugar-free chewing gum, sugar-free ice-cream, sugar-free breakfast cereals, etc.

A number of studies have repeatedly said that aspartame does not pose a risk for cancer. The listing by WHO, if it comes, will break from those earlier findings, “pitting it against the food industry and regulators”, the Reuters report said.

What is this assessment by the WHO?

Two different WHO groups — IARC and the Joint Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives, or JECFA — are currently reviewing the safety of aspartame.

The IARC concluded a meeting in France last week, and JECFA was scheduled to meet from June 27 to July 6 to update its risk assessment of aspartame, including reviewing how much can be safely consumed, The Washington Post reported on June 22.

The result of both evaluations would be announced on July 14, The Post’s report said, and noted that “many in the nutrition world [were] predicting the WHO will convey new concerns about the sweetener”.

The Reuters report published on June 29 said the IARC ruling had been “finalised earlier this month”, based on a review of all published evidence.

It said that the IARC assessment “does not take into account how much of a product a person can safely consume”, and that “this advice for individuals comes from…[the] JECFA, alongside determinations from national regulators”.

And what exactly is aspartame?

Chemically, aspartame is a methyl ester of the dipeptide of two natural amino acids, L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine. It was discovered by James M Schlatter, a chemist at the American pharmaceutical company G D Searle & Co. (which is now a subsidiary of Pfizer) in 1965, apparently by accident, when, while researching an anti-ulcer drug, he happened to lick his finger and detected a sweet taste.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar — which makes aspartame far less sweet than other artificial sweeteners like advantame and neotame, but even then, 1 gram of aspartame has the sweetness intensity of roughly 2 teaspoons (about 8 g) of sugar.

Aspartame is preferred by people trying to cut calories or lose weight, or by diabetics, because while 2 teaspoons (8 g) of sugar provides about 32 kcals of energy, 1 g of aspartame is only 4 kcals.

It is often argued that a 12 fl oz (about 350 ml) can of regular cola contains about 10 teaspoonfuls of sugar, while the same quantity of diet cola containing aspartame has only 7 kcals. Indeed, cans/ bottles of diet fizzy drinks often say “zero sugar” or “zero calories” on the packaging.

Aspartame is present in several brands of artificial sweeteners, the most common of which in India are Equal and Sugar-Free Gold.

So is aspartame dangerous?

Over more than 40 years, aspartame has been one of the most widely studied and rigorously tested chemical additives in food, including for its possible links with cancer. More than 100 studies have found no evidence of harm caused by aspartame.

While doubts and concerns have continued to be raised by some critics and a few studies, there is a broad scientific consensus on the safety of aspartame for all groups of people except one — those suffering from phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare inherited disorder in which the patient does not have the enzyme that is needed to break down phenylalanine, one of the two amino acids in aspartame. Foods containing aspartame carry the warning “Not for phenylketonurics”.

The USFDA permitted the use of aspartame in food in 1981, and has reviewed the science of its safety five times since then, The Washington Post report said. Aspartame is also certified as safe for human consumption by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), national regulators in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Australia, and even the WHO’s JECFA. Around 100 countries around the world, including India, permit the use of aspartame.

The Reuters report noted that past IARC rulings have “raised concerns among consumers about their use, led to lawsuits, and pressured manufacturers to recreate recipes and swap to alternatives”. This, the report said, “has led to criticism that the IARC’s assessments can be confusing to the public.

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