WHO to declare aspartame, popular artificial sweetener, as possible carcinogen: Report

The sugar substitute is widely used in products from diet sodas to chewing gums


Aspartame, one of the world's most popular artificial sweeteners, is likely to face a major setback over concerns that the product could cause cancer in humans. According to Reuters, International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the
World Health Organisation's (WHO) cancer research arm, is likely to declare aspartame as a likely carcinogen next month.

Based on information from unnamed sources, Reuters reported that the IARC's decision is based on discussion with experts and published evidence. The IARC, however, is unlikely to advice how of the product a person can safely consume.

Aspartame, the sugar substitute used in products from diet sodas to chewing gums, has been under scrutiny in recent time despite having the FDA's approval. JECFA, the WHO committee on additives, is also reviewing aspartame use this year, and is likely to announce its findings also next month.

Since 1981, JECFA has said aspartame is safe to consume within accepted daily limits. For example, an adult weighing 60kg (132 pounds) would have to drink between 12 and 36 cans of diet soda depending on the amount of aspartame in the beverage every day to be at risk, Reuters reported.

Interestingly, last month, the WHO warned against the overuse of non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) for weight loss. “There may be potential undesirable effects from long-term use of NSS, such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults,” the WHO said in a notification. Common NSS include acesulfame K, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia and stevia derivatives.

Soon after WHO released the guideline in May, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) said its scientific panel would evaluate the findings in detail.

Aspartame has been used for decades in the food and beverages industry, and the WHO's move will ignite further debates on the health effects of the ingredient often pitched as a “healthier alternative” to sugar. The WHO's cancer research arm is already facing a pushback from the industry in the wake of these reports. "IARC is not a food safety body and their review of aspartame is not scientifically comprehensive and is based heavily on widely discredited research," Frances Hunt-Wood, the secretary general of the International Sweeteners Association (ISA), told Reuters.