(Aspartame to be Listed as a Potential Carcinogen)
The food industry was hit with seismic news at the end of June, as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO), announced its plan to classify the artificial sweetener aspartame as a “possible carcinogen.” This news has sparked widespread attention, particularly among consumers, as beverages play an indispensable role in their daily lives. Sugar-free drinks, in particular, have gained immense popularity in recent years. Suddenly, overnight, could they now be labeled as potential carcinogens?
But hold on a moment, what exactly does “possible carcinogen” mean?
What is a “possible carcinogen”?
To understand this concept, let’s first guess which of the following is a carcinogen: 5G signals, Tea 3, Fluorescent lamps 3, Coffee 3, Gasoline 2B, Red meat 2A, Cigarettes 1. I believe you can easily determine that cigarettes are a known carcinogen. But what if I told you that red meat might also be one?
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies carcinogenicity into five categories: Group 1 (carcinogenic to humans), Group 2A (probably carcinogenic), Group 2B (possibly carcinogenic), Group 3 (not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity), and Group 4 (probably not carcinogenic). Tea, coffee, and fluorescent lamps belong to Group 3, while gasoline and aspartame, just like red meat, fall under Group 2B. On the other hand, red meat (beef, lamb, pork) falls under Group 2A, and sausages, bacon, and processed meat, similar to cigarettes, belong to Group 1, confirmed as carcinogenic.
At this point, you may initially feel a sense of concern, thinking about the bacon you had for breakfast and worrying if cancer cells have already found their way into your body. However, this quickly turns into anger and questioning: Who sets these standards? People I know have been eating bacon their whole lives without developing cancer.
Now, let’s get to know the organization behind this, the IARC.
IARC is an international non-governmental organization under the umbrella of the World Health Organization (WHO). Established in 1965, this organization is dedicated to cancer research, assessing the risk factors, epidemiology, prevention, and treatment methods of cancer. They conduct global cancer classification and evaluation, determining the evidence of various substances and factors in causing cancer in humans and categorizing them into the five levels we mentioned earlier. The information released by IARC itself is not legally binding, but their views undoubtedly indirectly influence regulatory decisions and also have an impact on related industries.
Let’s rewind to October 26, 2015, when IARC released a report classifying processed meat products like sausages, ham, and bacon as “carcinogenic,” and fresh red meat such as beef and lamb as “probably carcinogenic.” This news had varying degrees of impact on the stock prices of pig slaughtering and meat product-related companies. Today, the controversy surrounding aspartame is reminiscent of that event. However, let’s not forget that apart from IARC, numerous other organizations and individuals have been researching aspartame. Among them, the International Council of Beverages Associations (ICBA) is undoubtedly the most closely associated with the current situation.
ICBA believes that public health authorities should be cautious about IARC’s classification of aspartame as a “possible carcinogen” because it contradicts high-quality scientific evidence accumulated over decades. Drawing conclusions from low-quality scientific studies may mislead consumers. ICBA expects a broader and more comprehensive food safety review of aspartame. It is evident that ICBA holds a strong position, considering that the history of aspartame dates back to the last century.
So What Exactly is Aspartame?
Aspartame is a non-carbohydrate artificial sweetener. Like many inventions that have had a profound impact on humanity, aspartame was born out of an accident. In 1965, chemist James M. Schlatter accidentally tasted his finger while synthesizing an ulcer medication and was amazed to discover its sweet taste. This sweetness is about 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, but with astonishingly low calories. While 1 gram of sucrose contains about 4 kilocalories, 1 gram of aspartame contains onlyapproximately 4 kilocalories, which is almost negligible. Moreover, it does not cause tooth decay or sticky sensations. These characteristics make even non-sweet enthusiasts tempted.
After the approval of aspartame as a food additive by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1974, it began to be widely used. It is primarily added to beverages, vitamin supplements, or chewing gum as a sugar substitute. Many diabetes patients and individuals struggling with obesity started using it as a sugar alternative. Until today, the application of aspartame has become even more widespread, found in certain tomato sauces, condiments, children’s medications, bread, canned fruits, and snack foods. As the trend of zero-sugar products sweeps across the globe, the family of sugar-free foods, including sugar-free beverages, sugar-free jellies, sugar-free chewing gums, and sugar-free cold drinks, continues to expand.
It is worth contemplating which link in the chain went wrong. Initially, people chose sugar-free beverages for the sake of their health, but now they are becoming apprehensive about them. What caused this shift? In reality, the advent of the information age has magnified the fluctuations surrounding aspartame. People can instantly receive explosive news like this on their mobile devices, and through media amplification, it becomes a sensational event. However, is this the first time something like this has happened?
Controversies Persist from History to Present
Since its approval for use in 1974, aspartame has been a subject of ongoing controversy, with debates centered around four main areas:
- Safety: The safety of aspartame has been a contentious focus. While multiple authoritative scientific organizations have deemed aspartame safe within prescribed usage limits, some individuals still express concerns about its potential health risks. Certain studies have suggested links between aspartame and health issues such as cancer, metabolic syndrome, and obesity, but findings from different studies have been inconsistent when compared.
- Impact on weight management: Aspartame, as a low-calorie or zero-calorie sweetener, is commonly used to reduce sugar intake in food and beverages to aid in weight management. However, some studies indicate that individuals may compensate for the low-calorie effect of aspartame by increasing consumption of other high-calorie foods, thus potentially negating its intended weight control benefits.
- Influence on appetite and sweet taste preference: Some argue that long-term use of aspartame may alter people’s perception and preference for sweetness, leading to an increased desire for high-sugar foods.
- Individual differences and allergic reactions: Some individuals may exhibit individual differences or sensitivity to aspartame, which could result in allergic reactions or symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and gastrointestinal discomfort.
In addition, various rumors and conspiracy theories circulate online, with some claiming that safety investigations of aspartame are compromised due to conflicts of interest. For example, there are online rumors spread through emails suggesting that aspartame can cause various diseases. However, investigations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States have shown no epidemiological evidence to support the notion that aspartame can cause significant harm or serious risks.
The FDA has described aspartame as one of the most thoroughly researched food additives, and its safety is beyond doubt. The European Food Safety Authority has set the acceptable daily intake of aspartame at 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has set it at 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. For instance, a 355-gram can of sugar-free cola contains approximately 180 milligrams of aspartame. For an adult male weighing 75 kilograms, it would require consuming approximately 21 cans (7.3 liters) of sugar-free cola to reach the FDA’s specified upper limit of 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.
Drinking 7.3 liters in a day would be difficult and uncomfortable for an average individual. It’s worth noting that the Reuters report, citing anonymous sources, did not disclose the specific dosage at which IARC determined aspartame to have carcinogenic potential, i.e., the dosage at
which there is a risk of cancer for normal individuals.
Unraveling the truth, what is the reality?
Many professionals in the field of nutrition believe that even if aspartame is eventually declared potentially carcinogenic, it is unlikely to have a significant impact on the dietary habits of the general population. Many foods or ingredients have more explicit carcinogenic risks, such as betel nut and oral cancer, or alcohol and liver cancer. However, people have not completely avoided betel nut or alcohol because it is widely recognized that reaching the tipping point for cancer requires a substantial amount of consumption. Moreover, aspartame does not possess confirmed addictive properties, and those dependent on sugar cannot be equated to being dependent on aspartame, as there are numerous alternatives available.
We can also consider a more relatable example from daily life. Salt is an essential seasoning in our lives, but excessive salt intake can have various severe negative effects. However, this does not mean that salt is synonymous with heart disease. Irresponsible discussions omitting dosage are not responsible.
In fact, even the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) acknowledges that it is not an authoritative body for risk assessment based on actual consumption, nor does it provide health recommendations. Kate Loatman, Executive Director of the International Council of Beverage Associations (ICBA), stated, “We remain confident in the safety of aspartame due to overwhelming scientific evidence and positive safety
decisions made by food safety authorities in over 90 countries worldwide.”
Over the past 40 years, there have been hundreds of high-quality studies supporting its safety. Both the United States and the European Union have conducted multiple evaluations without finding any issues. Before the official release of the results, it is unclear what research evidence and logical arguments IARC based its conclusions on. However, it can be anticipated that at best, they found some kind of “association” rather than a causal relationship. It remains to be seen if there was any spurious correlation, reverse causality, or confounding factors taken into account. Given the current situation, it is more likely that IARC is grasping at shadows to make its presence felt.
Embracing Challenegs, Responding Flexibly
The recent aspartame controversy is neither the first nor the last for the industry. As human pursuit of health continues to increase in the context of highly developed material civilization, we firmly believe that our research on food ingredients will become increasingly in-depth. However, for the present moment, relevant industries and companies should actively and flexibly respond to challenges. In this regard, we have prepared some solutions for reference.
Stevia is a natural, calorie-free sweetener derived from the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It provides intense sweetness without the negative health effects of sugar, making it an ideal choice for those seeking a healthier alternative. Stevia is known for its ability to regulate blood sugar levels and promote dental health. With its natural origin and sweet taste, Stevia is a popular option for reducing sugar intake.
Monk Fruit Sweetener is a natural, zero-calorie sweetener derived from the monk fruit, also known as Luo Han Guo. It offers a sweet taste without the calories and negative impacts of traditional sugar, making it a popular choice for those looking to reduce their sugar intake. Monk Fruit Sweetener is known for its high sweetness level and is often used as a healthier alternative in beverages, baked goods, and other food products. With its natural origin and sweetening properties, Monk Fruit Sweetener provides a flavorful option for a balanced and healthier diet
Allulose is a low-calorie sugar substitute with a similar taste and texture to sugar. It provides sweetness without the same caloric impact and is ideal for those looking to reduce sugar intake or manage their weight.
Sucralose is a widely used artificial sweetener that provides a sweet taste without the calories of sugar. It is about 600 times sweeter than sugar and is commonly found in various food and drink products labeled as “sugar-free” or “low-calorie.” Despite its sweetening properties, sucralose does not significantly impact blood sugar levels and is generally considered safe for consumption.
Most businesses have gradually shifted from using a single sweetener to a combination of “natural + artificial” sweeteners. The world of food ingredients is rich and diverse, and everyone in the industry is working together to make the human world more exciting.
As a company focusing on functional and nutritional food ingredients, Ingreland will continue to provide natural, safe, and high-quality products and formulation solutions. For more industry-related inquiries, please feel free to contact us through various channels.