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Is aspartame carcinogenic?

by Ezra 7 minutes read

Last updated: 03 Jul, 2023

The World Health Organization is reported to declare aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans on July 14th. The artificial sweetener is found in many popular diet soft drinks.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), is expected to make an announcement on July 14th about the safety of aspartame and the possibility of it being carcinogenic.

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener, primarily used in sugar-free and diet food and drinks, providing a sweet flavour without adding calories. The sweetener is 200 times sweeter than sugar.

How safe is aspartame?

Aspartame has been approved for consumption by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1981. The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) have also approved of its use, alongside other international regulatory bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Regulatory authorities have established an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for aspartame. The ADI is considered a conservative estimate of the safe level of consumption and takes into account all known potential health effects.

For both adults and children, the FDA recommends an ADI of 50mg per kilogram of body weight per day. The EFSA recommends a slightly lower ADI for aspartame at 40 mg/kg.

According to the FDA’s recommendations, an individual weighing 70kg can safely consume up to 3,500 milligrams of aspartame per day. It would be highly unlikely they would exceed the ADI as it would require them drinking more than 18 cans of Diet Coke every day.

Which products contain aspartame?

Aspartame is found in over 6,000 foods and beverages, most commonly diet and zero-sugar sodas. It is also found in sugar-free chewing gum and mints, jellies, puddings, desserts, as well as flavoured water enhancers and light yoghurts.

Popular beverages containing aspartame include (but not limited to):

Coca-Cola Coca-Cola (all varieties)
Coca-Cola Zero Sugar (all varieties)
Diet Coke (all varieties)
Pepsi Pepsi Max (all varieties)
Diet Pepsi (all varieties)
Dr Pepper Dr Pepper
Dr Pepper Zero
7UP 7UP Free (all varieties)
Sprite Sprite Zero
Barq’s Barq’s Zero Sugar Root Beer
Tango Tango (all varieties)
Tango Sugar Free (all varieties)
Fresca Fresca
Gold Peak Gold Peak Diet Tea
Mello Yello Mello Yello Zero
Minute Maid Minute Maid Light
Pibb Xtra Pibb Zero
Seagram’s Seagram’s Diet Ginger Ale
Fanta Fanta Orange
Fanta Fruit Twist
Fanta Zero Sugar Orange
Lilt Lilt Zero (all varieties)
Irn Bru Diet Irn-Bru (all varieties)
Lucozade Lucozade Energy (all varieties)
Lucozade Sport (all varieties)
Oasis Oasis Summer Fruits
Oasis Citrus Punch
Ribena Ribena Really Light (all varieties)
Schweppes Schweppes Slimline Drinks (all varieties)
Crystal Light Crystal Light Sugar-Free Lemonade
Crystal Light Pomegranate Green Tea
Crystal Light Peach Mango Green Tea
Mountain Dew Diet Mountain Dew
Redbull Red Bull Sugarfree
Mug Diet Mug Root Beer
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Is aspartame carcinogenic?

Despite the sweetener being determined as safe to consume by regulatory bodies, the safety of artificial sweeteners including aspartame have long been debated. Studies have shown that consuming high amounts of aspartame can cause irritable mood, depression, and poor spatial orientation.

Scientists have researched for decades whether there is a link between the artificial sweetener and cancer, trying to determine whether it is carcinogenic. A carcinogen is an agent or substance that has the potential to cause cancer in humans and animals. These can be chemical, biological, or physical.

The IARC classifies carcinogenic substances into four categories depending on how strong the evidence is. Aspartame is set to be classified in Group 2B, making it possibly carcinogenic to humans.

Group 1 Carcinogenic to humans 126 agents Tobacco, tobacco smoke, asbestos, alcohol, ultraviolet (UV) radiation
Group 2A Probably carcinogenic to humans 94 agents Red meat, working night shifts, outdoor air pollution, HPV virus
Group 2B Possibly carcinogenic to humans 322 agents Styrene, nickel, welding fumes, pickled vegetables
Group 3 Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans 500 agents Surgical implants, caffeine, sulphur dioxide, diazepam, cholesterol

Although this seems alarming, professor of statistics at the Open University Kevin McConway explains that IARC categorisation does not determine the actual cancer risk level associated with a substance or agent. Instead, it tells us how compelling the evidence is. Aspartame’s classification in Group 2A means that there is limited evidence available to prove that there is a cancer risk associated with its consumption.

Alternatives to aspartame

There are several diet and sugar-free foods and beverages that are made without aspartame. Alternative sugar substitutes such as erythritol, stevia, sucralose, xylitol, and monk fruit extract are used instead. These alternatives have the same sweet flavour as aspartame whilst also being low in calories.

  • Diet Coke with Splenda

  • Diet Rite

  • Zevia (all varieties)

  • Diet Hansen’s (all varieties)

It will not be announced until July 14th whether the WHO decides to classify aspartame as a possible carcinogen. Previously, regulatory authorities have maintained that aspartame does not pose a cancer risk but the report may reveal new guidelines regarding safe levels of consumption.

Even if aspartame is classified as a possible carcinogen, it is important to remember this only means that there is limited evidence of aspartame having carcinogenic qualities. This does not necessarily make it cancer-causing. Alcohol, for example, is classified as one of the most carcinogenic substances as determined by sufficient evidence yet it can still be consumed safely in moderate amounts.

For those who still wish to avoid aspartame due to the perceived risks and dangers associated with it, there are plenty of alternative sugar substitutes and drink option that do not contain it.

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