The sweetener aspartame, commonly found in a variety of foods, is reportedly set to be officially classified as "possibly carcinogenic to humans." However, this classification does not provide any indication of the magnitude of the potential risk. Other substances that fall under the "possibly carcinogenic" category include aloe vera, diesel, and pickled Asian vegetables.
Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar and is commonly found in diet or sugar-free foods such as diet drinks, chewing gums, and some yogurts. It is present in popular drinks like Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Pepsi Max, and 7 Up Free, as well as approximately 6,000 other food products. While it has been approved by food safety bodies and used for decades, there has been controversy surrounding its safety.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization, has been reviewing over 1,300 studies on aspartame and cancer. According to sources close to the process, aspartame will be classified as "possibly carcinogenic." However, it is important to note that this classification does not provide information about the actual level of risk posed by aspartame.
The IARC uses four possible classifications: carcinogenic to humans, probably carcinogenic to humans, possibly carcinogenic to humans, and not classifiable. The "possibly" category is used when there is limited evidence in people or data from animal experiments. It includes substances such as diesel, talc on the perineum, nickel, aloe vera, Asian pickled vegetables, and various chemical substances. It is worth noting that these substances are not considered to have a strong likelihood of causing cancer, as they have not been classified in groups 1 or 2A.
The IARC classifications have been criticized in the past for causing unnecessary alarm and confusion. For example, when processed red meat was categorized as carcinogenic, some reports equated it to smoking. However, the risk associated with consuming additional bacon every day for the rest of one's life would only lead to one case of bowel cancer.
The Joint World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization's Expert Committee on Food Additives is expected to release a report on aspartame in July. Since 1981, their stance has been that a daily intake of 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight is safe, which is equivalent to consuming between 12 and 36 cans of diet drinks per day for a 60 kg adult.
Public health authorities and scientific committees have generally considered aspartame safe at current permitted use levels. While some early studies linked it to cancer in animal experiments, these findings were criticized, and subsequent studies have not found a cancer risk. However, a recent study suggested a higher risk of cancer with high levels of sweeteners, including aspartame, but it is important to consider the various differences in health and lifestyles between the two groups studied.
It is crucial to note that some individuals, specifically those with an inherited disease called phenylketonuria (PKU), cannot safely consume aspartame as they are unable to metabolize a component of the sweetener.