A house divided: WHO’s JECFA makes no daily intake change to aspartame, IARC declares it a possible carcinogen

By Ryan Daily

- Last updated on GMT

Image Credit: Getty Images - VadimZakirov
Image Credit: Getty Images - VadimZakirov

Related tags Aspartame WHO IARC Unmetered Unmetered

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) officially listed the popular artificial sweetener aspartame as a possible carcinogen, while the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) maintained its suggested daily intake of the food ingredient—prompting the food and beverage industry and FDA to defend the ingredient.

"I think the public is entitled to not to be confused,​" said Arnold Baskies, member of the Coalition for Safe Food and Beverage Choices ​Expert Advisory Committee, and past chairman of the National Board of Directors of the American Cancer Society, told FoodNavigator-USA. "[IARC is] not a food safety agency and its findings really have no meaning when it comes to reasonable consumption and whether it's a substance that we eat or take in actually constitutes a risk. At the end of the day, we really need to focus on the science and avoid confusing messages.​"

JECFA, IARC come to different conclusion, as FDA disagree with aspartame's listing

As predicted last month by a leak to the press​, IARC added aspartame to its “possibly carcinogenic to human​s” list, placing it in its Group 2B class (the third highest ranking) of carcinogens based on what it characterized as “limited evidence,​” following an evaluation of the carcinogenicity of the ingredient by a working group of 25 scientists from 12 countries.

At the same time, JECFA reaffirmed its acceptable daily intake of aspartame at 40 mg/kg body weight, which would mean a 154-pound (70 kg) adult would need to consume more than nine-to-14 cans per day with no other food sources. 

While sticking with its acceptable daily intake amount, JECFA also “considered the evidence on cancer risk, in animal and human studies, and concluded that the evidence of an association between aspartame consumption and cancer in humans is not convincing,​” Moez Sanaa, WHO’s head of the Standards and Scientific Advice on Food and Nutrition Unit, shared in a press release​. While finding no evidence of cancer risk, Sanaa implored that more studies be done to assess aspartame’s possible carcinogenicity.

We need better studies with longer follow-up and repeated dietary questionnaires in existing cohorts. We need randomized controlled trials, including studies of mechanistic pathways relevant to insulin regulation, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, particularly as related to carcinogenicity.​”

Mary Schubauer-Berigan of the IARC Monographs program argued the same, saying, “the findings of limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and animals, and of limited mechanistic evidence on how carcinogenicity may occur, underscore the need for more research to refine our understanding on whether consumption of aspartame poses a carcinogenic hazard.​”

FDA said in a statement that "aspartame being labeled by IARC as 'possibly carcinogenic to humans' does not mean that aspartame is actually linked to cancer,​" and that the government agency reviewed the report used in the determination and found  "significant shortcomings in the studies on which IARC relied.​"

Industry trade groups respond

As news broke on IACR’s decision, industry trade groups from the American Beverage Association​ to the Calorie Control Council ​quickly defended the food additive, citing its over forty years of use and numerous safety studies.  

In a statement, American Beverage Association Interim President and CEO Kevin Keane declared "aspartame is safe,​" and agreed with the conclusions made by JECFA, while not acknowledging IARC's findings. Similarly, in a statement, the president of the Calorie Control Council, Robert Rankin, backed up the safety and use of aspartame, noting "that IARC is not a regulatory agency or food safety authority.​"

"This strong conclusion reinforces the position of the FDA and food safety agencies from more than 90 countries,​" Keane said. "With more than 40 years of science and this definitive conclusion from the WHO, consumers can move forward with confidence that aspartame is a safe choice, especially for people looking to reduce sugar and calories in their diets.​"

Looking back at the history of aspartame

Though the impact IARC's decision on CPG companies and consumer perceptions is unknown, aspartame remains an important food ingredient that has been used for nearly 40 years.

Following the banning of cyclamates in 1970, the FDA approved aspartame as a sweetener in 1974​, which was initially used as a tabletop sweetener and for cereals, drink mixes, dairy products, instant coffees and teas, and other applications. The ingredient was later approved for use in soft drink beverages and a general-purpose sweetener in 1996, with saccharin being the sweetener of choice for the soft drink industry at the time. 

However, the purpose of the ingredient was always to have it used in both applications, Gary Stibel, founder & CEO at the New England Consulting Group and former marketing manager with Proctor & Gamble (P&G) told FoodNavigator-USA. During his tenure at P&G, Stibel worked with pharmaceutical company G. D. Searle, which P&G later acquired, on the approval of aspartame and the first commercial product, NutraSweet.

"In the mid-1970s, I was running P&G's food and beverage business, ... [and] we identified low-cal as a major driving force behind the food and beverage industry,​” Stibel said. “So, we were aggressively pursuing ways to deliver quality products that tasted good with fewer calories, and we discovered a molecule that G.D. Searle was working on, ... and it turned out to be aspartame.​"

Just like today, aspartame was sought after for its various properties and applications in the food and beverage industry, Stibel said. “Number one, its taste profile is very good. Number two, it is very low calorie. And number three, it is relatively inexpensive. It has all the attributes of a very important ingredient,​” he added.

How does aspartame impact gut health?

Though the food and beverage industry has pushed back on IARC’s decision to list aspartame as a possible carcinogen, recently, sweeteners and their health benefits​ have been put under the microscope again, with WHO research raising concern on how sweeteners might impact gut health and not be a sufficient tool in combating the obesity epidemic.

While acknowledging that aspartame has the potential to impact gut health, Baskies pointed out that many things we regularly consume can impact the microbiome. “Anything we put inside our bodies will change our body’s function, and that doesn't mean we shouldn't breathe, we shouldn't eat, or we shouldn't drink,​” Siegel added.

Not only that, but we also know that antibiotics, taking antibiotics affect the microbiome. And yet, where would the world be without antibiotics? I mean, we would have suffered hundreds of millions of deaths,​” Baskies said.

And with the FDA and JECFA both backing up the safety of aspartame through multiple studies throughout the years, consumers should continue feeling safe about consuming aspartame and should be empowered to make their own health decision, both Baskies and Siegel agreed.

I think we as individuals need to have safe choices and being able to empower ourselves to manage sugar and calories,​” Baskies said. “For most of the people that I know, and in my practice, sugar alternatives have not led to obesity; it has led to weight loss. And being able to make a decision on your own I think is part of what we should all be about.​”

Should food and beverage companies prepare reformulations?  

Despite the research backing the safety of aspartame, consumers' perception of the news can cause food and beverage to consider reformulating its products to avoid any perceived controversy, as has been done in the past with ingredients like monosodium glutamate (MSG)​.

Though acknowledging that there isn’t a need to reformulate at this moment, Stibel noted it doesn’t hurt for brands to be prepared for whatever comes next. 

"Large global agencies ... will have to think about it, and many will do work on potential reformulations,​" Stibel said. "We can't imagine ... the better-managed companies actually reformulating to create an inferior product when there's almost zero risk. But sure, you have to consider reformulations because you don't know what they're [going to] conclude, and you have to be prepared."

And ahead of WHO’s official announcement, PepsiCo’s CFO Hugh Johnston shared​ that the company currently had no plans to reformulate its product—aspartame is currently used in its Pepsi Zero Sugar​ formulation—given that “the weight of the scientific evidence suggests that aspartame is safe as an ingredient.​” However, PepsiCo has the capability to switch to a different sweetener if need be, and “it's relatively easy for [PepsiCo] to shift sweeteners if it became something that was important to do,​” Johnston noted.

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