GLOBAL – International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer research arm, is to issue a red flag on the use of Aspartame, one of the world’s most common artificial sweeteners, after new research linked it to possible increased cancer risk.

Next month, the leading global health body will declare the artificial sweetener as a possible carcinogen, pitting it against the food industry and regulators.

Aspartame is present in more than 6,000 products, including Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, Kool-Aid, Crystal Light, Tango, and other artificially sweetened drinks; sugar-free Jell-O products; Trident, Dentyne and most other brands of sugar-free gum; sugar-free hard candies; low- or no-sugar sweet condiments such as ketchup and dressings; children’s medicines and vitamins.

The ingredient, also known as E 951, is a synthetic chemical composed of the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, with a methyl ester. When consumed, the methyl ester breaks down into methanol, which may be converted into formaldehyde.

The IARC ruling, finalized earlier this month after a meeting of the group’s external experts, is intended to assess whether something is a potential hazard or not, based on all the published evidence.

However, people familiar with the developments say it does not consider how much of a product a person can safely consume.

This advice for individuals 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.

JECFA, the WHO committee on additives, is also reviewing aspartame use this year. Its meeting began at the end of June, and it is due to announce its findings on the same day that the IARC makes public its decision – on July 14.

Aspartame has been approved for use in more than 90 countries worldwide despite some studies linking it to health problems, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, seizures, stroke, and dementia.

A large 2022 cohort study in PLOS Medicine, involving 102,865 French adults, found that artificial sweeteners — especially aspartame and acesulfame-K — were associated with increased cancer risk.

 Higher risks were observed for breast cancer and obesity-related cancers. “These findings provide important and novel insights for the ongoing re-evaluation of food additive sweeteners by the European Food Safety Authority and other health agencies globally,” the researchers wrote.

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. Its view has been widely shared by national regulators, including in the United States and Europe.

International Sweeteners Association (ISA), whose members include Mars Wrigley, a Coca-Cola unit, and Cargill, said it had “serious concerns with the IARC review, which may mislead consumers.”

“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 ISA, said.

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