Sweetener Aspartame Safe or Risky? WHO and FDA clash over carcinogenicity

Symbolic image of soft drink containing artificial sweetener as an ingredient.  unsplash
Symbolic image of soft drink containing artificial sweetener as an ingredient. unsplash

Controversy continues over the artificial sweetener aspartame as experts debate its potential carcinogenicity. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, citing limited evidence of an association with cancer.

However, the US Food and Drug Administration disagrees that aspartame is safe when consumed within approved limits.

“The safety of our products is our top priority,” said American Beverage, an industry trade group, praising the decision of the Expert Committee on Food Additives not to change the daily acceptable limit of aspartame. This highlights the ongoing conflict of opinion regarding the safety of aspartame use.

Aspartame is a commonly used artificial sweetener found in many sugar-free products such as diet soda, chewing gum and low-calorie desserts. It was first approved by the FDA in 1974, and its safety has been a matter of debate ever since.

Disagreement over the safety of aspartame stems from the interpretation of the available evidence. The WHO classification is based on limited evidence suggesting a possible association between aspartame consumption and cancer. In contrast, the FDA argues that extensive studies have found no safety concerns within approved use levels.

Dr. Francesco Branca, from the WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, advises, “Although the WHO’s classification raises concerns, it is important to remember that their recommendation is for moderation, not complete abstinence.” This underscores the importance of balance when consuming products containing aspartame.

Aspartame, made from two amino acids (phenylalanine and aspartic acid), is a low-calorie alternative to sugar. It is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar, allowing smaller amounts to be used to achieve the desired level of sweetness while controlling calorie intake.

Some studies suggest a possible link between aspartame consumption and health risks such as liver and lung cancer. However, critics argue that these studies used unrealistically high doses of aspartame not typically found in regular human consumption.

In 2013, after a thorough review, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that aspartame and its related products are safe for the general population as long as the acceptable daily intake is not exceeded. The WHO’s recent classification adds another layer of complexity to the ongoing debate.

While the exact effects of aspartame on human health remain uncertain, it is important to consider the available evidence, exercise moderation, and make informed choices about personal consumption. As experts continue to study the potential effects of aspartame, more research is needed to provide a comprehensive understanding of its risks and benefits.

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