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Aspartame – is it a possible cause of cancer?

Aspartame – is it a possible cause of cancer?

Aspartame: Understanding Its Potential Impact on Health

By James Gallagher
Health and Science Correspondent

In recent reports, the sweetener aspartame, commonly found in various foods and carbonated beverages, is anticipated to be officially labeled as “potentially carcinogenic” to humans. However, this label often leads to confusion as it does not provide a clear indication of whether the associated risk is significant or negligible.

Deciphering the “Possibly Carcinogenic” Classification

Aspartame is not the only substance categorized as “possibly carcinogenic” – other substances falling into this category include aloe vera, diesel fuel, and pickled Asian vegetables. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization, is set to make an announcement on July 14th regarding this classification.

Understanding Aspartame and Its Prevalence

Aspartame, with a sweetness that is 200 times more potent than sugar, offers the desired taste without the added calories. This artificial sweetener is commonly listed in the ingredients of various diet or sugar-free products, including diet beverages, chewing gums, and some yogurts. Prominent soft drinks such as Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Pepsi Max, and 7 Up Free also contain aspartame. In fact, this sweetener can be found in around 6,000 different food items.

For decades, aspartame has been utilized and approved by food safety regulatory bodies. Nevertheless, controversy has swirled around its safety, prompting the IARC to review approximately 1,300 studies investigating the potential link between aspartame and cancer.

The Classification Conundrum

According to information obtained from sources close to the process, it is anticipated that the IARC will classify aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic.” However, it’s important to clarify what this classification truly signifies. The IARC employs a classification system with four potential categories:

  1. Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans
  2. Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans
  3. Group 2B: Possibly carcinogenic to humans
  4. Group 3: Not classifiable

This is where the distinction becomes critical. The IARC’s categorization does not convey the actual level of risk associated with aspartame; rather, it reflects the strength of the evidence. Kevin McConway, a statistics professor at the Open University, emphasizes that these categorizations indicate how robust the evidence is, not the risk level posed by the substance.

The “possibly” category is assigned when there is “limited” evidence from human studies or data derived from animal experiments. This category includes various substances such as diesel, talc on the perineum, nickel, aloe vera, Asian pickled vegetables, and several chemical compounds. Prof. McConway underscores that these substances are placed in the “possibly” category because the evidence suggesting their potential to cause cancer is not particularly strong; otherwise, they would have been categorized as Group 1 or 2A.

Clarifying the Implications

Past experiences have shown that IARC classifications can lead to confusion and unnecessary alarm. For instance, when processed red meat was categorized as carcinogenic, sensationalized reports likened its risks to those of smoking. However, the actual risk posed by consuming an extra 1.7oz (50g) of bacon daily throughout one’s lifetime would only result in one case of bowel cancer among 100 individuals.

While specific numbers regarding aspartame’s risk are not available, the Joint World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization’s Expert Committee on Food Additives is expected to release a report in July. Since 1981, this committee has maintained that a daily intake of 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight is safe. This equates to consuming between 12 and 36 cans of diet drinks each day for an adult weighing 60 kg (approximately 9.5 stones).

Expert Opinions and Cautious Interpretations

The leaked opinion about aspartame’s classification has raised concerns among public health authorities and advocates. Kate Loatman, the executive director of the International Council of Beverages Associations, emphasizes the potential for misleading consumers into choosing sugar-laden options instead of safe low-sugar alternatives. Rick Mumford, the deputy chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Food Standards Agency, asserts that the body will thoroughly examine the reports. Nonetheless, the agency maintains that the sweetener’s safety has been evaluated by multiple scientific committees, confirming its safety at current permissible levels of use.

Balancing Research and Risk

A study in the early 2000s initially linked aspartame to cancer in rodent experiments, although subsequent findings disputed these claims. In a more recent study involving 105,000 participants, higher cancer risks were associated with increased sweetener consumption, including aspartame. However, it’s essential to recognize that various differences in health and lifestyle between the two groups could have influenced these results.

Frances Hunt-Wood, representing the International Sweeteners Association, underscores that aspartame is one of the most extensively researched ingredients globally, endorsed as safe by over 90 food safety agencies worldwide.

It’s crucial to note that certain individuals with an inherited disorder known as phenylketonuria (PKU) are unable to safely consume aspartame due to their inability to metabolize a specific component of the sweetener.

In conclusion, the potential “possibly carcinogenic” classification of aspartame by the IARC has spurred discussions and concerns. However, a nuanced understanding of the classification system and the actual risk factors involved is essential for informed decision-making regarding its consumption.

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