The World Health Organization (WHO) recently said that aspartame may be a carcinogen. However, they said that designation was based on limited evidence and more support is needed. They said consuming 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight is safe. Depending on the soda, someone weighing 154 pounds would have to drink more than nine to 14 cans daily to have a health risk. The FDA still believes that aspartame is not a carcinogen.
WHO made the decision after reviewing three large studies that found a possible link between aspartame and liver cancer. But, Dr. Mary Schubauer-Berigan, a senior official at the International Agency for Research on Cancer said that the three studies could have been biased, influenced by chance or has other flaws. She said people shouldn’t take the announcement as proof that aspartame is cancerous. Instead, it “is really more a call to the research community to try to better clarify and understand the carcinogenic hazard that may or may not be posed by aspartame consumption,” she said.
The FDA reviewed the same studies and identified “significant flaws.” They recommend no more than 50 milligrams of aspartame per kilogram of body weight more overall health. The European Food Safety Authority’s current guidelines state, “Aspartame and its breakdown products are safe for human consumption at current levels of exposure.”
“Aspartame is one of the most studied food additives in the human food supply,” said an FDA spokesperson. “FDA scientists do not have safety concerns when aspartame is used under the approved conditions.”
Some believe that the WHO is more trustworthy on the topic than the FDA because of the business interests of the people who sit on their committees. “In the early 1970s, US standards were noticeably higher than European standards,” said Erik Millstone, a food safety policy expert and professor emeritus of science policy at the Univ. of Sussex. “But over time, the FDA has been increasingly subordinated to commercial interests.”
The sweetener has been under scrutiny since it was first approved as an additive in 1974. Anyone who regularly reads our blog knows we aren’t big fans of the word “additive” when it comes to food! But if the option is added sugar or a noncaloric sweetener, it’s better for people with blood sugar concerns to reach for the sugar-free option. Our first suggestion would be sparkling water if someone wants something bubbly, but sometimes that won’t do.
“My big concern is that I don’t want people saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to stop diet sodas, I’m gonna get sugared sodas,’ and then they start drinking those and gain weight, which we know is one of the major cancer risks,” said Dr. Therese Bevers, who directs the Cancer Prevention Center at the Univ. of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “And that has solid data.”
While people have argued about aspartame for decades, there has been “very little long-term research, surprisingly,” said Dr. William Dahut, chief scientific officer at the American Cancer Society. People want a clear answer on the safety of aspartame. But he said, “We don’t have the evidence yet.”
Until we get more long-term studies, we won’t get a consensus or a clear yes or no on whether aspartame is carcinogenic. But we know for certain that water helps you stay hydrated without any calories. On these hot summer days, reach for water first if you want a calorie-free drink to refresh yourself.