We have all been there, sweetening our tea with ‘zero calories’ artificial sweeteners to cut down sugar in our diet. These tiny sweet tablets have moved into our diets very swiftly, especially for those of us living with diabetes and other health factors that require moderating or removing sugar altogether.
But recent reports on aspartame, one of the most commonly used sweeteners in foods and beverages, have raised alarm. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is reportedly expected to declare aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in July.
But before pressing the panic button, let us find out what aspartame is, where it is used, and what IARC’s upcoming ruling means for us.
What is aspartame?
Aspartame is a common artificial sweetener that was first discovered in 1965 and got approved by US FDA as a food additive in 1975.
It is said to be some 200 times sweeter than usual table sugar. And still, the sweetener adds zero calories to our diet and leaves no bitter aftertaste like saccharin or other products in use.
The combination of intense sweetness and zero calorific value has made aspartame popular among health-conscious consumers and a favourite in the food and beverage industry.
But on the flip side, a 2022 observational study from France consisting of 100,000 adults showed that people who consumed larger amounts of artificial sweeteners — including aspartame — faced a slightly higher cancer risk.
What products is aspartame used in?
Aspartame is widely used as a low-calorie sugar substitute in fizzy drinks like Diet Coke, chewing gums, sugar-free confectionery, desserts, low-fat yoghurts, ice creams and even cough syrups!
Additionally, its usage as a flavour enhancer in baked and canned products, candy, pudding, and powdered drink mixes of coffee, tea and juice, is also widespread.
What does the upcoming IARC ruling mean?
The IARC ruling, reportedly finalised earlier this month, is based on a review of 1,300 published studies on aspartame and its potential risks.
The upcoming report also includes recommendations from the WHO’s expert committee on food additives, known as JECFA (Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Expert Committee on Food Additives), as well as from national regulators.
As per IARC, aspartame may be ‘possibly carcinogenic’.This doesn’t necessarily mean it causes cancer, but suggests possible links to the disease. Indicating that there’s either sufficient evidence on its ability to cause cancer in animals or strong proof of carcinogen-like features. But there’s no conclusive evidence that it causes cancer in humans.
For context, the IARC ranks substances as carcinogenic, probably carcinogenic, possibly carcinogenic or not classifiable, roughly telling us how much evidence links a substance to cancer in humans.
How much aspartame is safe to consume as per current guidelines?
Past assessments suggest that a person weighing 68 kilograms could safely consume the equivalent of aspartame in more than 13 cans of Diet Coke per day.
In fact, JECFA ’s acceptable daily intake is set at 0-40 milligrams per 1 kilogram of body weight — about 2,730 milligrams for someone weighing 68 kilograms. Indian health experts, too, have stated that the use of non-sugar sweeteners in moderation may not cause harm in people with diabetes.
According to sources close to IARC, listing aspartame as a possible carcinogen is a step to motivate more research on food and consumer safety.
Meanwhile, some food and beverage companies continue to defend their use of aspartame, whereas others have tweaked their recipes and switched to other alternatives, and some in the US have dropped it altogether.
(With inputs from IANS and TOI)
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