On 14 July, safety assessments on the health impact of Aspartame, a non-sugar sweetener commonly used in food and beverage products, were officially released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).
Citing ‘limited evidence’ for carcinogenicity in humans, IARC classified aspartame as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ to humans (IARC Group 2B) and JECFA reaffirmed the acceptable daily intake of 40 mg/kg body weight.
Aspartame is an artificial (chemical) sweetener widely used in a wide variety of products from diet drinks to chewing gum, ice cream, breakfast cereals and dairy products such as yogurt.
Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, WHO said, “The assessments of aspartame as potential cancer-causing have indicated that, while safety is not a major concern at the doses which are commonly used, potential effects have been described that need to be investigated by more in-depth studies.”
The 2 bodies conducted independent but complementary reviews to assess the potential carcinogenic hazard and other health risks associated with aspartame consumption. This was the first time that IARC has evaluated aspartame and the third time for JECFA.
After reviewing the available scientific literature, both evaluations noted limitations in the available evidence for cancer (and other health effects).
IARC classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B) on the basis of limited evidence for cancer in humans (specifically, for hepatocellular carcinoma, which is a type of liver cancer).
JECFA concluded that the data evaluated indicated no sufficient reason to change the previously established acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 0–40 mg/kg body weight for aspartame. The committee therefore reaffirmed that it is safe for a person to consume within this limit per day. For example, with a can of diet soft drink containing 200 or 300 mg of aspartame, an adult weighing 70kg would need to consume more than 9–14 cans per day to exceed the acceptable daily intake, assuming no other intake from other food sources.
More research with longer follow-up and repeated dietary questionnaires are needed to understand further on whether consumption of aspartame poses a carcinogenic hazard. The joint-assessments made by the 3 bodies were based on scientific data from a range of sources like peer-reviewed papers and government studies/reports. As of now, the findings are non-conclusive, however it has already done enough damages to the food and beverage industry, especially to industry players who use aspartame in their products.
A spokesperson from the International Sweeteners Association said that such review could mislead consumers into thinking that sugar is safer compared to the no- and low-sugar option.
Meanwhile, suppliers of natural sweeteners stand to benefit from this review findings. Already, mainland China suppliers like Shandong Sanyuan Biotechnology, Guilin Layn Natural Ingredients and other makers of food additives saw their shares surged on expectations that demand for their products could rise after the release of the leaked report on aspartame in late June. Sanyuan Biotechnology manufactures erythritol, a naturally abundant sweetener while Guilin Layn makes natural ingredients derived from plants.
Aspartame is commonly used in China’s food and beverage industry catering to the sugar-free trend. The diet drinks market in China has quadrupled since 2017 to reach nearly Rmb 20 billion (US$2.78 billion) last year, according to consultancy iiMedia Research.
There is a strong possibility that downstream manufacturers could replace aspartame with other natural sweeteners such as sucralose, as an example. The new findings will lead to more positive recognition of natural sweeteners as safe and clean-label by consumers. According to one report, from 2010 – 2020, the use of natural sweeteners as compared to sugar has increased from 8% to 29% in mainland China.