FDA is at odds with WHO over possible aspartame-cancer link

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Two food-safety titans are clashing over aspartame, the artificial sweetener found in Diet Coke, sugar-free gum and dozens of other popular products.

The World Health Organization said this week aspartame is “possibly carcinogenic,” or a cancer-causing agent.

But that listing doesn’t mean that aspartame is definitely a cause of cancer, so it’s not in the same category as ultraviolet radiation, tobacco or asbestos, according to the National Cancer Society.

The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has simply declared that there might be a possible link between aspartame and liver cancer, based on “limited evidence.”

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration issued a statement today that the “FDA disagrees with IARC’s conclusion that these studies support classifying aspartame as a possible carcinogen to humans.”

Furthermore, “FDA scientists do not have safety concerns when aspartame is used under the approved conditions.

bottles of diet coke
Aspartame is found in Diet Coke, other diet drinks, and dozens of other foods.
Ron Adar / M10s / MEGA

“The sweetener is approved in many countries. Regulatory and scientific authorities, such as Health Canada and the European Food Safety Authority have evaluated aspartame and also consider it safe at current permitted use levels.”

The WHO, in its press release on the issue, noted that the upper limit for safe daily consumption of aspartame is 40 mg per kilogram of body weight.

In other words, “an adult weighing 70kg [154 lbs] would need to consume more than 9 –14 cans per day to exceed the acceptable daily intake.”

The food industry wasted no time in applauding the FDA’s stance on aspartame.

Today’s FDA statement “not only confirms the four decades of science concluding aspartame is safe but also provides real-life ‎context around the safe consumption of this ingredient,” said Robert Rankin, President, Calorie Control Council.

packs of artificial sweeteners
Many industry and food experts state that artificial sweeteners are actually safer in some ways than products loaded with sugar.
Getty Images

“IARC looks for substances that could potentially cause cancer without considering actual dietary intake, and has found many things, such as drinking hot water and working at night, to be probably carcinogenic.”

Much of the debate centers on aspartame’s role in helping consumers avoid sugar, which has well-known links to the negative health effects of being overweight or obese.

“People may choose to use sweeteners instead of sugar for various reasons,” the FDA stated. “For example, sweeteners contribute only a few or no calories to the diet and generally will not raise blood sugar levels,” an important issue for people with diabetes.

The WHO’s listing is “misleading, inaccurate and fear-mongering to the nearly 540 million people globally living with diabetes and millions of others managing their body weight who rely on and/or chose products that contain low- and no-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame,” Rankin added.

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