Aspartame, one of the world's most common synthetic sweeteners, is likely to be declared a possible carcinogen this month by an affiliate of the World Health Organization (WHO), sources told the Reuters news service.
Aspartame, used in products from diet sodas to chewing gum, will be listed on July 14 as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" for the first time by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organization's (WHO) cancer research arm, the sources exclusively told Reuters.
The IARC reached that conclusion in June after a meeting of the group's external experts, who assess whether something is a potential hazard or not based on published evidence. The recommendation does not take into account how much of a product a person can safely consume.
Since 1981, JECFA (the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization's Expert Committee on Food Additives), has said aspartame is safe to consume within accepted daily limits. For example, an adult weighing 132 pounds would have to drink between 12 and 36 cans of diet soda – depending on the amount of aspartame in the beverage – every day to be at risk, according to the Reuters report. Its view has been widely shared by national regulators, including in the United States and Europe.
JECFA is also reviewing aspartame use this year and is expected to announce its findings on the same day the IARC makes public its decision (July 14). IARC and JECFA rulings are not binding but have impact, especially on governmental bodies that do have the power to ban substances.
IARC has four levels of concern for substances and has in the past labeled processed meat as “carcinogenic,” its highest level of concern—along with asbestos and other more obvious carcinogens, according to Reuters.
Aspartame would likely fall into the third, "possibly cancer-causing," category, along with the radiofrequency electromagnetic fields associated with using mobile phones, said Reuters, meaning there is either limited evidence they can cause cancer in humans, sufficient evidence in animals or strong evidence about the characteristics.
Reuters quoted Frances Hunt-Wood, secretary general of the International Sweeteners Assn., as saying "IARC is not a food safety body and their review of aspartame is not scientifically comprehensive and is based heavily on widely discredited research."
The full Reuters report is here.