Sweet success

The World Health Organization’s cancer agency released an assessment late last week, finding that aspartame “possibly” has the ability to cause cancer — specifically, a type of liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, said its decision, announced on 14 July, was based on limited evidence for liver cancer in studies on people and rodents.

However, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) said that recommended daily limits for consumption of the sweetener, found in thousands of food and drink products, would not change.

“There was no convincing evidence from experimental or human data that aspartame has adverse effects after ingestion, within the limits established by previous committee,” said Francesco Branca, director of the WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety.

To put it into context, other substances classed as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ include extracts of aloe vera, traditional Asian pickled vegetables, some vehicle fuels and some chemicals used in dry cleaning, carpentry and printing.

I can’t see this development any more clearly than as was stated – “a call to the research community to try to better clarify and understand the carcinogenic hazard that may or may not be posed by aspartame consumption.”

Although aspartame has been studied a great deal, we need larger and longer trials, and the quality of the research needs to improve – not just for industry but also for consumers.

It may be that the changes caused by aspartame don’t make a huge difference to our health, but we should certainly dig deeper and with more transparency. For a compound that is consumed by many every day, we need water-tight safety information that the national press will interpret without any ambiguity. Entirely avoiding aspartame would be incredibly challenging, and it might not be necessary.

Related content

Leave a reply

Food and Drink Technology