Is artificial sweetener aspartame really a cancer risk?

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener used in a wide range of food and beverage products, has been a topic of controversy amid concern regarding its alleged cancer connection. Over the years, numerous studies and claims have emerged, leaving consumers in need of clarification about the safety of this common sugar substitute. 

This issue has returned to the spotlight due to The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the specialised cancer agency of the World Health Organization, declaring that aspartame may be a possible carcinogenic hazard to humans.

Historical concerns

Aspartame, commercially known as NutraSweet, Splenda or Equal, is an artificial sweetener approved for use by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and other regulatory bodies worldwide. It is about 200 times sweeter than sucrose, making it a popular choice for low-calorie or sugar-free products. It is commonly used in diet sodas, sugar-free candies, chewing gum, and other processed foods.

Since its approval in the 1980s, aspartame has faced persistent skepticism regarding its safety. Some early studies, which were later deemed flawed or inconclusive, raised concerns about potential cancer hazards. However, the majority of the scientific community and regulatory agencies have concluded that aspartame is safe for human consumption within the recommended limits.

A hazard is different from a risk

The hazard rating means it’s an agent that is capable of causing cancer; a risk measures the likelihood it could cause cancer.

Numerous global regulatory bodies have conducted extensive reviews of aspartame’s safety and concluded that it poses no significant cancer risk when consumed within acceptable daily intake levels. The TGA, the World Health Organization (WHO), and other reputable organizations have consistently reaffirmed aspartame’s safety. The acceptable daily intake (ADI) for aspartame is set at 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, a level significantly below what would cause harm.

What evidence did WHO consider?

On the latest review, the IARC looked closely at the evidence base from around the world – using data from observational studies, experimental studies and animal studies.

They found there was some limited evidence in human studies linking aspartame and cancer (specifically liver cancer) and limited evidence from animal studies as well.

For instance, a study conducted in Europe followed 475,000 people for 11 years and found that each additional serve of diet soft drink consumed per week was linked to a 6% increased risk of liver cancer. However, the scientists did concede that due to the rarity of liver cancer they only used very small numbers of people in the study

In a study from the US, an increased risk of liver cancer was seen in people with diabetes who drank more than two or more cans of diet soda a week.

The third study, also from the US, found an increase in liver cancer risk in men who never smoked and drank two or more artificially sweetened drinks a day.

Another reason behind the ongoing aspartame-cancer debate lies in the observation that cancer rates have risen in parallel with aspartame consumption over the years. However, it is crucial to note that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. The increase in cancer rates can be attributed to various factors such as better detection methods, an aging population, and changes in lifestyle and diet.

​​After reviewing the available scientific literature, IARC classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B) on the basis of limited evidence for cancer in humans. Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, WHO stated that “The assessments of aspartame have indicated that, while safety is not a major concern at the doses which are commonly used, potential effects have been described that need to be investigated by more and better studies.”

What does this mean for products with artificial sweeteners?

Given the current acceptable daily intake of aspartame, a 70kg person would need to consume about 14 cans (over 5 litres) of soft drink sweetened with aspartame a day to reach that limit. It’s important to remember that there may also be aspartame added in other foods consumed. So while this is an unrealistic amount to consume through soft drinks alone, it may not be impossible to consume this amount when a poorly constructed diet is considered overall.

The foods we typically see aspartame in are processed or ultra-processed, which have recently also been shown to be detrimental to health. And artificial sweeteners (including aspartame) can make people crave more sugar, making them want to eat more food, potentially causing them to gain more weight.

Putting it all together, the evidence suggests that we should be cautious about how much artificial sweeteners we have. However, based on this information, drinking the occasional or even daily diet drink is considered safe and likely not a risk for cancer.

Opinions or facts expressed within the content have been sourced from various news sources. While every effort has been taken to source them accurately, the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates do not take any responsibility for errors in these sources. Patients should not rely on the facts or opinions in the content to manage their own health, and should seek the advice of an appropriate medical professional. Further, the opinions or facts in the content do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates. 

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